Today, a new module leaves for the ISS: Nanuka, with a robotic arm built largely in the Netherlands. But how long will that be used? The life span of the oldest parts of the space station has long passed.
The ISS is a collaboration between international partners: the US, Russia, Europe (ESA), Japan and Canada. Formally, that collaboration ends in 2024.
In recent years, there are occasional worrying messages coming from the space station. About microcracks, metal fatigue, micrometeorite impacts and sometimes small amounts of leaking air. These problems are particularly common in the Russian part of the ISS and the reports are reminiscent of the old Russian space station Mir, which in his afterdays had to deal with one horror scenario after another: fire, power outages and a life-threatening leak.
The state of the ISS is far from that dramatic, knows space expert Ronald Klompe, involved in the National Space Museum in Lelystad. “I dont expect any collisions or fires, but some parts launched in 1998 or shortly thereafter were only intended for a period of about 15 years. Weve been over that a long time ago. The thing still goes is because theres much more money for the ISS than it was for the Mir, and more maintenance is being done.”
Still, nobody wants to pull the plug for the time being. NASA remains the major driver of the billion-dollar station. ESA and JAXA also want to continue until 2028. “Personally, I believe the ISS has a nice life ahead of it,” ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said earlier this month when he was in the Netherlands for a briefing on robotic arm ERA.
The fact that the US with international partners will build a new small space station by the Moon (the Gateway) in the coming years, is not in the way of Aschbacher. The Gateway will raise a lot of money, but the ISS is still an important element for NASA. “I cant predict what theyre going to do. But what has been built in more than 20 years, that experience and expertise have a lot of value, and it doesnt just let you disappear from one day to the next.”
Yet there is a player who threatens to throw soot in the food. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said in April that his country could withdraw from the ISS in 2025 – precisely because of the stations aging, and Dmitri Rogozin, head of Russian space organization Roskosmos, launched plans for a new one a few days later. Russian space station, apart from ISS.
The question is how realistic those plans are, says Klompe. The Russian space program is experiencing a chronic lack of money, especially now that Soyuz is no longer the only means of transport that astronauts can join the ISS. “Russia makes 70 million euros per passenger,” he knows. “But the competition with the American Crew Dragon and later the Boeing Starliner, they sell fewer seats.”
The total Russian space budget is about $2.5 billion, about twice less than the European budget and ten times less than NASAs. However, the country can boast of an impressive row of firsts in space, which the country, 60 years of the flight of Yuri Gagarin, likes to point out, for example in this video:
“What you need to understand about the Russians is that they want more recognition,” says Klompe. “After the fall of the Iron Curtain, they joined the ISS, but a lot of attention goes to the Americans, and she doesnt like that.”
Hence the rapprochement to China. Last month, Russia and China came up with a joint plan for a lunar base, the ILRS, as a counterpart to the American-driven Gateway/Artemis lunar program, which Russia would also have a small role in. “The Russians were only offered to build an airlock for the Gateway, and they feel like a second-rate partner.”
Thats why Moscow is beting on several horses. “If the Americans do not give Russia a bigger role in the Gateway, then Russia can choose to cooperate with China,” says Klompe.
the end, its about money too. Another module is planned to power the Russian part of the ISS so that the Russians no longer depend on the large American solar panels. That part can also form the basis of a new station. “But for now, theres only a structural model of it, and money to really build the module is hardly there.”
At the same time, NASA, ESA, JAXA and Canada still need the Russian part of the ISS, no matter how old, to regulate and propel the ISS, Klompe stresses. “Eventually, they cant live without each other in the coming years.”