NASA: no current plan for the return of space station parts to museums
– A recently released plan for how NASA will dispose of the International Space Station makes no mention of preserving historically significant components of the complex in orbit. But that’s not just an omission in one report: The space agency says it currently has no plans to return potential artifacts to Earth.
The International Space Station (ISS) Transition Report, which NASA posted on its website in January, outlines the budget and logistics required to safely deorbit the space station at soccer field scale in the heading for a controlled but destructive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere over an uninhabited area of the South Pacific Ocean. Any surviving parts would fall and sink around “Point Nemo”, a region traditionally used for spacecraft disposal given that it is the farthest from any land.
The report, which assumes the space station will end in 2030, also explains what NASA wants to do with the complex in its remaining years. Goals include using the complex to conduct scientific research, develop the burgeoning commercial space industry, and enable international cooperation. Another of the goals, which NASA calls “Inspire Humankind,” calls for engaging the public “through different platforms to communicate the values that [the] ISS brings to the nation and to the world.”
This last goal, however, seems to end when the space station reaches its end. The document says nothing about saving parts of the ISS as museum artifacts that could continue to inspire the public for many decades to come, well beyond the station’s lifetime.
“There has been no discussion in the International Space Station program to return objects for display only,” NASA said in a statement, responding to a survey by collectSPACE. “No down bulk has been set aside at this time on upcoming cargo flights as we remain focused on maximizing utilization of the International Space Station.”
“Any decision to return artefacts of [the] the space station would occur at a later date depending on available cargo space, as we will prioritize scientific feedback,” the statement concluded.
NASA’s response suggests that historic preservation is not one of its priorities, despite its transition report listing science and inspiration as equally important goals. It also means that any future decisions made to save items will have to be opportunistic, coming only after other program needs have been met. It didn’t need to be.
When preparing the transition plan, NASA provided the budget it needed for several cargo vehicles to safely deorbit the space station. However, he did not view the use of other supply ships to bring historically significant or representative parts back to Earth in the same way.
The lack of advance planning and resource allocation when it comes to identifying “heritage assets” aboard the space station reflects an issue on which the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) has cautioned during a 2018 audit of historic NASA property. In that report, the OIG found that NASA representatives were “unable to explain who was responsible for designating an item as a heritage asset or how or why an item was designated as a heritage asset.”
collectSPACE has repeatedly asked NASA to speak with the official responsible for reviewing the preservation of parts of the space station. None of these people have been identified.
“NASA’s lack of a sufficient process to identify its heritage assets may jeopardize the preservation of irreplaceable historic assets,” the OIG warned in its report.
In a follow-up to its transition report, NASA answered some of the questions it has received about the plan, including why the disassembly and return to Earth of the complete modules and major components that make up the International Space Station is n were not feasible.
“Preserving the station in a museum presents significant logistical and financial challenges,” the space agency wrote in an update posted on its website. “Any disassembly effort to safely return individual components would face significant logistical and financial challenges, requiring substantial labor from astronauts and ground support personnel as well as a spacecraft with a similar capability. to the large payload bay of the space shuttle”,
The space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011. Today, the only vehicle with significant mass capability is the SpaceX Dragon, which can return up to 6,614 pounds (3,000 kg) to Earth.
NASA’s update also touched on equipment reuse, indicating that while it will assess which internal components might be of interest to private space stations taking over from the ISS, there are no current proposals from commercial suppliers who request it.
“Much of the station’s structural hardware was designed and built in the late 1990s and 2000s, while new commercial destinations will benefit from more recent technological advancements,” NASA said.
The transition report identifies the annual budget for deorbiting the ISS, “including the cost associated with three [Russian expendable] Progress vehicles needed to support this effort “to reach approximately $1.5 billion in its peak year, which is currently expected to be 2028. The report does not address the cost of setting aside volume on a Earthbound SpaceX Dragon capsule or other returning spacecraft, but a price chart for commercial use of the space station (while still in orbit) sets the passive cargo landing rate at 40 $000 per 2.2 pounds (1 kg).
If NASA later decided to bring back parts of the space station for museum display, a longstanding agreement would give the Smithsonian Institution first right of refusal. The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. has a gallery devoted to “Moving Beyond Earth”, which includes the space station, but the number of artifacts it has from the program is limited. .
“The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum has a long history of working with NASA as operational programs ended in the past, selecting objects and artifacts to preserve what was important to history,” said Margaret Weitekamp, president of Space History. department of the National Air and Space Museum. “At this time it is perhaps premature to speculate on decisions that will become clearer in nine years when they are more immediate. The International Space Station continues to be dynamic and vibrant, with lots of good science to come.