What Happens Next? | Vol. 3 / No. 35.2

Photo: NASA

It’s an interesting question that’s being asked more and more these days: what happens when the International Space Station is too old to use? Originally designed to run only through 2020, two years ago it got a four-year extension to 2024, but that’s only eight years away — so what comes next?

The international situation is quickly balkanizing: Russia and the US have never seen eye-to-eye, but things have worsened since the sanctions post-Crimea; China and the US aren’t even allowed to share data; and with Britain leaving the EU, their mutual contributions will probably get a little chaotic (and certainly less effective) until their economies clear up.

NASA seems to have made its post-ISS priorities cislunar and even Martian space, with plans to send the Orion around the moon and rendezvous with a captured asteroid on the one hand, and a long-term plan to put humans on the red planet on the other. To that end, they tested a very large rocket today.

China is focusing on sending a rover to the far side of the moon in 2018 — a first for any country — and have just tested a new rocket that could carry larger payloads and people to orbit.

And Russia — well, it looks like Russia has a plan now, too. Their plan is to take the last module for the ISS — the Nakua module, which won’t be launched for another 18 months yet — and detach it from the space station. Then they’ll add a multi-port module to it, a powerplant module, and some science modules, and whiz-bang, you have your Russian answer to the post-ISS world: the Russian Orbital Station, or ROS.

America’s answer to LEO science may be to contract flights with its burgeoning private spaceflight industry — using Bigelow inflatable modules, SpaceX Dragon capsules, and frankly anyone else who’s running a space tourism business by then to ferry experiments into orbit. In the mean time, they can corner the market (so to speak) on things further afield.

It’s going to be an interesting couple of decades for space exploration. Who knows, maybe Elon Musk will send people to Mars before NASA does. Maybe the EU will put a base on the Moon. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a fun ride.

You can read more about the ROS plan at Popular Mechanics.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.