NASA is building a $1 Billion Spacecraft to Safely Pull International Space Station Back To Earth

NASA has officially called upon companies to submit designs for a so-called U.S. Deorbit Vehicle (USDV) for the International Space Station (ISS). This pioneering spacecraft would have the crucial mission of safely bringing the ISS back to Earth, marking the ISS’s planned retirement.

The unprecedented project comes with an estimated price tag “a little short of about $1 billion,” as reported earlier this year by Kathy Lueders, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations.

Seeking Domestic Innovation

Although initial considerations revolved around employing Russian spaceships for this monumental task, NASA, in a strategic shift, opened the floor this month to proposals from U.S. industry. The deadline for these innovative submissions is set for November 17, following the initiation of the call for designs on September 20.

The ISS has been a symbol of international cooperation in space research since 1998. It’s managed and operated jointly by NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and Russia’s State Space Corporation (“Roscosmos”).

The USDV is being designed to carry out the last and most crucial step in bringing the space station back to Earth. This vehicle could be a completely new design or a modification of an existing one. It’s essential that this vehicle works perfectly on its first mission. It also needs to have backup systems and the ability to recover from unexpected issues to complete the critical task of initiating the final return of the space station to Earth. 

NASA says that the primary objective during the space station deorbit operations is ensuring the ISS’s structure re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere responsibly. This means avoiding populated areas, and descending into an unpopulated ocean segment. Officials have created a plan to safely retire the space station. This plan combines a few steps:

First, they’ll let the space station naturally lower its height in space over time due to gravity and the slight drag from the Earth’s outer atmosphere (this is called “natural orbital decay”).

Second, they’ll use the space station’s onboard engines (referred to as “propulsive elements”) to intentionally lower its height in space even more.

Lastly, they will carefully control the space station’s return to Earth (referred to as a “re-entry maneuver”) to make sure any pieces that break off during re-entry fall in a safe, uninhabited area (this is the “debris footprint”).

ISS Operational Transition

Each agency involved in the ISS program is responsible for controlling the hardware it contributes, working interdependently and relying on contributions from across the global partnership to function. The international commitment to operate the station is pledged through 2030 by the United States, Japan, Canada, and the participating countries of the European Space Agency (ESA). Russia has committed through at least 2028.

Post the ISS program, the U.S. foresees a transition in its operations in low Earth orbit to commercially owned and operated platforms. This will reinforce continued accessibility and presence in space for consequential research, technology evolution, and international partnership.

Future of Space Endeavors After International Space Station’s Return

As the ISS program nears its conclusion, the participating space agencies share the responsibility of safely deorbiting the station. The extensive developmental endeavor of the USDV is anticipated to span years, involving meticulous development, testing, and certification processes.

This new endeavor not only signifies a phase of transformation for international space agencies, but also underscores the acceleration of space technology and exploration. It will open new realms of possibilities and collaborations in the human journey to the cosmos. The upcoming proposals are poised to shape the next chapter in space operations, marking a controlled and responsible approach to concluding the longstanding mission of the International Space Station.

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