The International Space Station – which is operated by the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and a number of other nations – was constructed at the cost of tens of billions of dollars over a number of years. Russian rockets and U.S. space shuttle's help to carry its various components into orbit where they could be assembled. But with Russia suggesting it will soon build a separate station and abandon the International Space Station, will the U.S. also abandon its investment in this enormous scientific project?Should it do so?The International Space Station was never intended to last for multiple decades, and technically speaking, it has already exceeded its designed lifetime. However, as reported by Space.com, NASA recently extended its use well into the 2020s. Whether this is actually practical or not depends on the wear and tear on the station and the cost of maintaining it. Even in space, machinery wears out and has to be replaced or repaired.
Even worse, as reported by Popular Mechanics, Russia is indicating that it intends to create an entirely Russian-built station – similar to the older space stations they used to operate. With the Russians pulling out of the International Space Station – if they do – would the U.S. be able to continue operating the current station?
If we are willing to make the investment, the answer is yes. Currently, the United States is in the final stages of testing its own manned vehicles for reaching low Earth orbit and the space station again. While for years now, NASA has been forced to depend on the Russians for getting to the station, this is about to come to an end.In addition to NASA's own vehicle currently being built by Boeing, the private space company SpaceX is also constructing its Dragon 2 vehicle, which will not only be able to carry astronauts to the station, it will also be able to take them beyond Earth orbit.
In the end, though, the question is whether the International Space Station has any practical purpose in the immediate future. While the scientific research being conducted on the station is of dubious value, its use as a port of call for vehicles returning from the moon or Mars – as well as a construction or assembly site for such vehicles – could be invaluable.
In fact, both government and private industry are already formulating plans for expeditions to Mars, along with permanent colonies on the red planet. A functional International Space Station in low Earth orbit could help to facilitate such plans.
For example, Elon Musk and his pioneering SpaceX Corporation announced last year their intention to create colonies on the surface of Mars inhabited by thousands – and eventually millions – of human beings.
In order to accomplish this incredible objective, Musk is planning to create what he calls the Interplanetary Transport System, a series of massive ships capable of carrying large numbers of people from Earth to the planet Mars. Having a pre-existing infrastructure in place in Earth orbit would help SpaceX with its long-term plans for Mars.
The International Space Station could serve as an assembly point for such spacecraft and as a kind of port for leaving and returning ships. Of course, for the International Space Station to play such a role, it would have to be expanded over time.
There has been some talk at NASA that the International Space Station could – and perhaps should – be sold or turned over to private companies or organizations. These companies would either operate it for NASA or for their own private purposes.
[Featured Image by NASA via Getty Images]