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How the International Space Station Works

Future of the ISS

International Space Station
NASA astronaut Christina Koch is seen here with new hardware for the Cold Atom Lab (CAL), an experiment that produces clouds of atoms chilled to temperatures much colder than deep space so scientists can study fundamental behaviors and quantum characteristics. NASA

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Knowledge rarely comes cheap. With its $100 billion cumulative price tag, the ISS is one of the most expensive undertakings in human history. And for years, financial considerations have raised questions about its long-term future.

The ISS will continue to receive funding from participating nations through the year 2024. But some major changes may be on the horizon. Recently, NASA has floated the idea of opening the station to private companies, in keeping with Reagan's original plan. Maybe — at some point — commercial interests will assume partial or total control of day-to-day operations. Yet it remains to be seen if the ISS will ever become privately owned, as some politicians hope [sources: Greenfieldboyce and NASA].

Space may be the final frontier, but by now, the station's orbital domain has become familiar territory. Once again, NASA is setting its sights on the moon: The ongoing Artemis program is supposed to land "the first woman and the next man" on Earth's natural satellite by the year 2024 [source: NASA].

So where does that leave the ISS? Some administrators and scientists think research conducted aboard the station is vital to the success of future lunar — and Martian — exploration efforts. Still, money questions always rear their ugly heads. Does the ISS divert too much cash away from other spacefaring projects — or vice versa? On July 31, 2019, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstone announced that the agency wouldn't take any money out of its ISS budget to fund new lunar landing tech. "If you cannibalize science, if you cannibalize the ISS, you will never achieve the end state you desire," he opined [sources: Matthews and Redd].

While participating governments discuss their off-world laboratory's fate, China has been creating space stations of its own. Two prototypes — Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 — ended their runs in planet Earth's orbit in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Both vessels were used to help develop a bigger and better project: A large, ISS-like craft with three modules. According to the Chinese government, it'll be completed in the early to mid-2020s [source: Jones].

No matter what tomorrow holds for the International Space Station, it remains a marvel of space construction — and as of this writing, it's the longest manned space mission ever undertaken.

Last editorial update on Dec 17, 2019 07:12:09 pm.

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