Agence France-PresseMarch 16, 2021 10:58:22 AM IST
After 20 years of uninterrupted residence, the International Space Station has entered its “Golden Age” and is teeming with activity – in large part thanks to the return of U.S. rocket launches through commercial partner SpaceX. But while the near future of this post-Cold War symbol of cooperation is guaranteed, NASA wants to start separating by the end of the decade, leaving a gap that the private sector and China hope to fill. “This space station has become the spaceport we wanted it to be,” Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s human space program, said at a recent press briefing.
With the completion of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, America became dependent on Russian Soyuz rockets for “taxi” rides to the giant satellite.
SpaceX changed that last year with the success of its Crew Dragon, which is now preparing for its second manned routine flight, and its third overall, in April.
“Our recent agreements with the U.S. private industry have allowed us to bring more people into space, more people to the International Space Station,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s ISS program manager.
Since the spacecraft can carry four people – compared to three for the Soyuz – the standard size of the space station crew has increased from six to seven people.
The ISS therefore needs a new bed – with installation currently underway.
SpaceX’s Crew-2 mission exploded from Florida on April 22 and the four astronauts will overlap with the Crew-1 crew for several days before that team returns from a six-month mission.
During that time, the station will accommodate no less than 11 people.
“We’ll be kind of thinking in camping mode,” joked Crew-2 spacecraft commander Shane Kimbrough. “We just find a place to sleep on the wall somewhere or on the ceiling, it doesn’t matter there.”
Science in the foreground
“We are entering the Golden Age of ISS use,” David Parker, Director of Human and Robotics at the European Space Agency (ESA).
Former President Ronald Reagan referred to the American “pioneering spirit” when he ordered NASA to “develop a space station with a permanent crew”.
The first components were sent into space in 1998, while the first crew spent several months there in 2000.
The latest pressure module was installed in 2011, leaving a huge artificial satellite of 109 to 35 meters, approximately the size of an American football field.
“In the first half of the space station’s life, most of the focus was on building it,” said Robert Pearlman, a space historian and author of “Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Space Work.” AFP.
Now astronauts still have work to do on maintenance work, “but most of their time is spent doing hundreds of scientific studies,” he added.
More than 3,000 experiments have been performed in this microgravity laboratory, which flies an average of 400 kilometers above the Earth, 28,000 km / h.
The immediate future of the ISS is officially secured by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada by 2024.
“From a technical standpoint, we have cleared the ISS to fly by the end of 2028,” NASA said in a statement to AFP. “In addition, our analysis did not identify any problems that would prevent us from extending beyond 2028 if necessary.”
Montalbano said AFP plans to begin analysis for the period 2028-2032 later this year.
The use of the space station is expected to evolve.
NASA, which wants to financially separate to focus on its deep space exploration with the Moon to Mars missions, has announced in 2019 that it will welcome tourists on the ISS to help recoup costs.
It will be driven by SpaceX or Boeing – whose own taxi program “Starliner” lags behind the schedule.
“I hope we will fly the first private astronaut mission in 2022,” Montalbano told AFP.
Competitors are also on the horizon.
Private company Axiom Space wants to build the world’s first commercial space station – first by attaching its modules to the ISS, before it eventually detaches itself and begins orbiting.
China plans to begin work on its own Tiangong space station this year and hopes to complete it by 2022.
Russia and China last week announced plans for a joint lunar station, “on the surface and / or in lunar orbit,” launching a new space alliance.
The move came after Moscow refused to participate in Gateway, NASA’s lunar station. It could then be a fitting symbol of the end of a decade-long US-Russian space partnership when the ISS finally debuts and falls into the ocean.