NASA has revealed their timeline for what they see as the lifespan of the International Space Station (ISS), which commits to operating the station until 2030, and then de-orbiting it into the Pacific ocean in 2031. Now, I certainly get why NASA is planning to do this — the station is getting pretty old, with the first components docked together way back in 1998, and everything has a lifespan, of course. But, not all of the station is that old, and I suspect that even nine years from now, the ISS could prove very useful for someone, even if it’s too used-up for NASA. That’s why I think some enterprising space agency out there should consider a salvage mission.
Now, I’m pretty sure that NASA won’t go for a salvage mission, and I suspect that even if they agreed to let some other space agency take over the station, NASA would probably want to sell it, for money, because they know what they got, and I’m not here looking to blow a huge wad of cash on some stinky old used space station — I’m looking for a bargain.
That’s why I think this very legitimate salvage has to be done kind of on the down low. So, if you’re considering giving it a try, maybe don’t make too big a deal about it, at least at first.
As for who I think could or should pull this off, I actually do have a space agency in mind, and it’s not one of the usual expected players: Russia may already be planning to separate its ISS modules for its own purposes, and I think if they tried to salvage the whole station, it could be seen as a hostile act.
China is developing their own station currently, and has the first module in orbit. They don’t need a used station. But there is one other country on the verge of human spaceflight that could make a lot of use from a well-used but salvageable space laboratory: India.
India’s planned Gaganyaan crewed vehicle is likely to launch its first mission by 2023, which should give India plenty of time to work out any kinks as they work to building reliable human spacecraft, at least one of which will be needed for this plan.
Also, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has publicly stated the goal of having their own space station, with a timeline of five to seven years after their first crewed flight of Gaganyaan. Wouldn’t it be so much more appealing to just be able to move into and restore the largest space station ever built by humans? Of course it would.
With all this in mind, here’s my general plan:
Here’s how it would work: first, whoever is doing this would need to wait until NASA and the ISS partners have undocked from the station for the last time, and made some sort of announcement that the ISS program is finished, and they will soon begin the process of de-orbiting the station.
At this point, with NASA stating that their plans for the station are to ditch it into the Pacific, we can consider the station effectively abandoned, and salvage efforts from from this moment on can be considered legitimate and not, you know, piracy.
Still, no one is getting NASA’s permission for anything, so we have to work quickly and cleverly here.
As soon as possible after the station can definitely be considered abandoned, two launch vehicles should be ready to launch: the first would be an orbital booster module, equipped with an ISS-standard docking module. If India’s ISRO decides to do this, I’d bet that a Gaganyaan modified with the crew module replaced with fuel tanks could do the job?
The ISS may be ready to do its own de-orbit with resupply craft already docked to the station, or, more ideally for this plan, such a de-orbiting vehicle may need to be launched and docked. The best case for this plan would be to get our orbital boost vehicle to the station first.
The orbital boost vehicle would then dock and begin the process of moving the ISS to a new orbit. As soon as possible, a second rocket with the crewed vehicle would launch, and begin the process of catching up with the ISS to rendezvous and dock.
Once docked, the crew would begin the process of disabling the ISS’ receiving antennae and disabling communication systems. Most of the commands are sent via the S-Band antenna, but to be safe, all comms systems should be disabled, because NASA is full of clever people who could likely take back control of the ISS via HAM radio if they had to.
There may need to be some EVAs involved here, physically removing antennae and hardware from the exterior of the station. This is an extremely important step, because this is how we’ll effectively be able to “change the locks” on the ISS.
Finally, the ISS should be in its new orbit, with its normal comm systems deactivated and replaced with new systems — ideally secure ones — brought up with the crewed module, or on the booster vehicle itself.
Once at this point, with the ISS in a new orbit, taking commands only from its new owner, I think we can consider the ISS salvaged.
This might be a good time to repaint it and re-name it, too.
Listen to me, ISRO or any other up-and-coming space agency: this is a $150 billion asset up there, and even with depreciation, it’s still worth plenty. It’s crazy to just chuck it into the ocean! Go get it!