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SYFY WIRE International Space Station

SpaceX Will Design the Vehicle to Destroy the International Space Station

The first company to deliver astronauts to the ISS will also play a key role in destroying the station.

By Cassidy Ward

In The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station, astronauts relay the experiences and unique perspective of life 250 miles above the planet. If humanity ever becomes a spacefaring civilization, exploring the solar system and the deeper cosmos, there’s a pretty good chance that the foundations of that exploration will have been built on the International Space Station (ISS).

Unfortunately, all wonderful things must eventually come to an end, and the ISS is no exception. Some of its components are nearing three decades old and reaching the end of their operational lives. The station still has a few good years left in it, it won’t make its last orbit of the planet until at least 2030, but after that we’re going to need a way to bring it down safely. NASA recently announced a contract with commercial space company SpaceX to develop the spacecraft which will destroy the International Space Station.

NASA considered several options for the station once its functional life was over, including boosting it into a higher orbit and disassembling it for return to Earth. If left to its own devices, the station’s orbit would eventually degrade and it would fall into the sky, scattering any surviving debris across an unknown area. In the end, the most feasible option was to push it into an intentionally destructive orbit over the Pacific. The question then became how to move the largest spacecraft ever built – something like a million pounds worth of mass – in a controllable way.

For More on the International Space Station:
Everything You Need to Know About the International Space Station
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With Help from a Robot, a Surgeon on Earth Performs Simulated Surgery on the ISS

SpaceX Selected to Build the Deorbit Craft That Will Destroy the International Space Station

International Space Station

The original plan was for the Russian thrusters (the same thrusters that keep the station in a steady orbit today) to push the station into the atmosphere, but that plan has become complicated in recent years. While international relations aboard the station appear to remain smooth, tensions have been mounting on the ground for a while, in large part because of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. With that in mind, NASA started looking at contingencies.

In September 2023, NASA released its final Request for Proposals to commercial space entities. Essentially, it was an official request for commercial partners to submit their ideas for a deorbit vehicle to safely push the station into its grave. Now, the agency has announced that after reviewing the submitted proposals, SpaceX has been selected to design and construct what’s being called the U.S. Deorbit Vehicle. The first commercial company to deliver astronauts to the ISS will also play a key role in destroying the station at the end of the decade.

“Selecting a U.S. Deorbit Vehicle for the International Space Station will help NASA and its international partners ensure a safe and responsible transition in low Earth orbit at the end of station operations. This decision also supports NASA’s plans for future commercial destinations and allows for the continued use of space near Earth. The orbital laboratory remains a blueprint for science, exploration, and partnerships in space for the benefit of all," said Ken Bowersox, associate administrator for Space Operations Mission Directorate at NASA HQ in Washington, in a statement.

This continues the recent trend of NASA tapping commercial partners to run missions on its behalf. In many cases, the contracted entity (SpaceX in this case) is responsible for the life of the mission, from design and construction to launch and mission control. This particular mission will be a true partnership, NASA is providing up to $843 million and SpaceX is responsible for producing the deorbit craft. Once built, NASA will take over and be responsible for the actual operation of the craft and deorbit of the station.

Hundreds of explorers have orbited the planet since the International Space Station became operational in 2000. In that time, astronauts and cosmonauts have performed more than 3,000 experiments and spent a continuous 24 years in space, laying the foundation for future human exploration of the wider cosmos. Now we know how it will die, with a nudge from NASA and SpaceX.

See the space station for yourself in The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station, available from Universal Pictures.