Expanding, And Eventually Replacing, The International Space Station

Aboard the International Space Station (ISS), humanity has managed to maintain an uninterrupted foothold in low Earth orbit for just shy of 20 years. There are people reading these words who have had the ISS orbiting overhead for their entire lives, the first generation born into a truly spacefaring civilization.

But as the saying goes, what goes up must eventually come down. The ISS is at too low of an altitude to remain in orbit indefinitely, and core modules of the structure are already operating years beyond their original design lifetimes. As difficult a decision as it might be for the countries involved, in the not too distant future the $150 billion orbiting outpost will have to be abandoned.

Naturally there’s some debate as to how far off that day is. NASA officially plans to support the Station until at least 2024, and an extension to 2028 or 2030 is considered very likely. Political tensions have made it difficult to get a similar commitment out of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, but its expected they’ll continue crewing and maintaining their segment as long as NASA does the same. Afterwards, it’s possible Roscosmos will attempt to salvage some of their modules from the ISS so they can be used on a future station.

This close to retirement, any new ISS modules would need to be designed and launched on an exceptionally short timescale. With NASA’s efforts and budget currently focused on the Moon and beyond, the agency has recently turned to private industry for proposals on how they can get the most out of the time that’s left. Unfortunately several of the companies that were in the running to develop commercial Station modules have since backed out, but there’s at least one partner that still seems intent on following through: Axiom.

With management made up of former astronauts and space professionals, including NASA’s former ISS Manager Michael Suffredini and Administrator Charles Bolden, the company boasts a better than average understanding of what it takes to succeed in low Earth orbit. About a month ago, this operational experience helped secure Axiom’s selection by NASA to develop a new habitable module for the US side of the Station by 2024.

While the agreement technically only covers a single module, Axiom hasn’t been shy about their plans going forward. Once that first module is installed and operational, they plan on getting NASA approval to launch several new modules branching off of it. Ultimately, they hope that their “wing” of the International Space Station can be detached and become its own independent commercial station by the end of the decade.

The First Piece of the Puzzle

The module Axiom will build as part of the recently announced agreement with NASA will be called “Axiom Node One”, or AxN1. It will be a slightly larger version of the design used for the existing Harmony and Tranquility nodes. These cylindrical nodes not only provide living and working environments, but act as vital junctions for expanding the Station. Each one features six Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) ports that can either be used temporarily for resupply spacecraft such as the SpaceX Dragon or as a permanent mount point for another module. They cannot however be used for crewed spacecraft such as Russia’s Soyuz or the Boeing CST-100 Starliner, as those vehicles use active docking ports that are faster to disconnect in the event of an emergency.

The AxN1 node is also planned to include a so-called “Earth Observatory” module, envisioned as a larger version of the Station’s existing Cupola. Rather than being a simple window, the Observatory will be deep enough to allow crew members to enter and move around in. During flight the Observatory will be attached to the forward CBM port of the AxN1, and after it’s been attached, the Station’s robotic arm will move it to the node’s nadir (Earth-facing) CBM port.

But before it can be installed, things will need to get rearranged slightly. The plan is to berth AxN1 to the front of the Harmony mode, but that’s currently where the second Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA-2) is installed. This recent video released by Axiom shows how they propose to attach their modules to the ISS, but it starts with PMA-2 already removed and out of sight (the PMA seen on top of Harmony in the video is actually PMA-3).

This device converts a CBM into a docking port for crewed spacecraft, which is obviously a capability the Station requires to function. So the PMA-2 will need to be relocated before the arrival of AxN1, it’s just not immediately clear where it’s going to go.

Packing Up and Moving Out

Assuming all goes according to plan with AxN1 and the ISS program gets the expected extension, the company plans to launch their second module in 2025. Called “Axiom Habitation Module One” or AxH1, this module will only have ports on either end and devote most of its internal volume to crew accommodations. Rendered images show the inside of AxH1 offering high-tech luxury not unlike something from 2001: A Space Odyssey, though it seems likely the final module would have a somewhat more utilitarian appearance for practical reasons. The following year, the pair of modules would be joined by the “Axiom Research and Manufacturing Facility” (AxRMF).

Axiom’s completed station separates from the ISS.

If this seems like a breakneck pace to launch and install new Station modules, that’s because it is. By the time AxN1 and AxH1 get installed, retirement of the ISS may only be two or three years away. If the company has any chance of using the existing Station infrastructure as a springboard to help get their own self-sustaining segment built, they’ll need to move fast.

Before this hypothetical Axiom commercial space station could break free of the ISS and operate independently, it’s going to need power. Concept art of the Axiom modules show they will all feature integrated solar panels to support basic functionality, but performing any kind of useful science or manufacturing aboard the station will require more energy then they can provide. There also needs to be a way for the station to dissipate all of the heat generated by the humans and equipment onboard.

So the long term-plan is to add an extendable module with its own large photovoltaic array and thermal radiators to take over once the ISS is gone. As this array would potentially be deployed before the Axiom segment separates, it would mount to the zenith (space-facing) port of AxN1 and extend vertically so it won’t interfere with the solar panel “wings” of the Station.

Open For Orbital Business

Axiom’s plan has a lot of steps that need to happen very quickly, and success is far from guaranteed. But assuming everything works out and nobody beats them to the punch, by 2030 the company should be the proud owner of the world’s first commercial space station. It would be a phenomenal technical achievement, and a historic moment as far as the democratization of space goes. But for a commercial outpost to make sense there obviously needs to be customers. So who’s paying?

The view is phenomenal, but it’s certainly not cheap.

With crew compartments that look like they were inspired by science fiction and an Observation deck large enough for multiple people to float freely inside, there’s no question Axiom has their eyes on space tourism. If the likes of Mark Shuttleworth and Richard Garriott were willing to pay tens of millions of dollars to spend a few days aboard the International Space Station, a destination that features all the comforts and luxuries of a ship’s engine room, the potential ticket price for a true “Space Hotel” could be enormous.

But there are very few individuals who could afford such an opportunity, and of them, only a small percentage would be willing to actually strap into a rocket and make the trip. There’s little doubt that a few more wealthy tech entrepreneurs would be willing to book a short stay aboard, but that alone isn’t going to be enough to cover the cost of building and operating the station.

Somewhat ironically, Axiom’s biggest customer in the foreseeable future will likely end up being NASA. The retirement of the International Space Station doesn’t mean an end to science in low Earth orbit, it just means it will have to be done somewhere else. All of that research that NASA either performs themselves or orchestrates for other agencies will need a new home, and the Axiom station could be where it ends up.

The agency currently spends $3-$4 billion each year to maintain and support the ISS, representing about half of their annual human spaceflight budget. If even a fraction of that could be earmarked for purchasing time on a commercial space station after 2030, then commercial operators like Axiom will have at least one heavyweight customer they can count on.

98 thoughts on “Expanding, And Eventually Replacing, The International Space Station

    1. Ugg I can’t imagine the torture of trying to use those tiny fasteners in space. It was bad enough as a kid. But add a pair of space suit gloves.

      That or not sharing enough as they disassemble it to use on their build.

        1. Lego requires force and leverage. What are you going to push against in order to snap things together? (I am assuming you are talking about huge, super sized, human scale Lego)

  1. “the $150 billion orbiting outpost will have to be abandoned.” Man, just think about that kind of money put towards something actually useful like renewable energy, or better rechargeable batteries. That price does not even begin to come close to the money used to keep it up and running.

      1. Most if not all of those could be accomplished without the ISS, and much cheaper.

        Except for the part where the ISS is the main customer for commercial LEO launches, since there’s nowhere else to go and little use to launch satellites to LEO otherwise.

        1. Also, NASA likes to re-badge and appropriate inventions from other fields and claim they’re space program spinoffs. For example, the microgravity water distiller, which was adapted from existing technology to make it work in space, and then “adapted” to use back on the ground – in other words, returned back to its original form. Yay, tax dollars at work.

          And the water purification system wasn’t even developed for the ISS originally, but for the Space Shuttle, so that’s another bit of retconning there.

          1. Was the purification system adapted for micro gravity and then unadapted for ground use or was it improved for micro-gravity and then adapted for ground use? The ISS can be thought of like the hobby projects all of us do. It isn’t practical or cost effective on it’s own but it provides a desire to develop new skills and technology that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

          2. In my understanding they simply took some of the concepts like using iodine as a chemical sterilizing agent and then re-engineered the whole thing from the first principles, since a microgravity distilling device would be completely overkill and non-functional on the ground.

            The point is that distilling water isn’t new, and it’s not a problem that is specific to a space station. You don’t need to go to orbit to figure it out.

        2. Humans are fundamentally lazy creatures by nature they need something to motivate them to excel. We invent stuff for space that we didn’t even think of uses on Earth but then we find an Earth use after it was invented. With your attitude we humans would have missed out. Thank goodness some humans are inquisitive.

          1. In reality, most of the technologies used in the space program were adapted from existing terrestrial applications – very few actually went the other way around.

            Someone invented the stuff first – such as a turbo pump used in gas pipelines or a special rocket engine built for shooting at the Russians – and then NASA applied it to a space rocket, and when it works there NASA starts to parade it as their invention with a hand over fist for more money.

          2. There were turbo-pumps in the V-2. IIRC one of Von Brauns creations for keeping engines from melting. Use fuel as nozzle and combustion chamber coolant and H2O2 steam turbine driven pumps. 1944. They reached 50 miles altitude with a 2000 pound load.

    1. Methinks that bribes, errrm I mean donations, to members of Congress easily top that amount.

      Besides, some money could be saved by not having military bases in almost every country on Earth. Just a thought.

      To outside observer, US space program represents the best of America, and it is very good for your international prestige. MIC spending, endless wars, and spying on everyone, does the opposite. Take your pick.

    2. Beyond a certain point, the money is meaningless. There are only so many researchers and engineers who will work on a particular idea. Aside from the limited number who are qualified, there is a limit on the number willing to work on something with many other researchers. And what you ask is not well defined like finding the Higgs boson. SO, you can’t just throw money at a problem and expect more results from more money.

      1. Actually, yes, yes you can. The entire philosophy of the space program has essentially been to use vast quantities of money to get seemingly unsolvable problems solved. It’s what got us to the moon, and an avalanche of technology was developed for those Apollo missions that have changed the world… including a little thing called a computer. You might not like space travel and experimentation, but you can’t argue with results. NASA is batting a thousand at this point.

        1. At that time, tax policy favored corporate think-tanks like Boeing Research and Hughes Research, etc. and they were hot beds of both new engineering and fundamental research. For instance, Boeing Research had a gas gun that fired at several km/sec to study impact and deformation with a team of physicists and engineers. Those places don’t exists anymore and were staffed by people from pre-WWII to the cold war. And the cold war era educational system stressed science and engineering. The think-tanks and that education system are gone now.

          It will take you 20 years to grow all the new brains you need. Just look at breast cancer research for an example. The various foundations collect more money than can be used and they wind up paying for mediocre useless stuff, or giving big raises and bonuses to the directors. There just are not enough qualified people who are willing to be a little fish in a big pond. So, no, no you can’t.

          1. HRL absolutely still exists and is absolutely still making things. If you think that there aren’t a plethora of brilliant engineers out there right now, you’re a fool.

          1. Oh Shannon, HowardC, play nice now…
            Rather than point fingers, point out and inform! :P

            I know that there’s a long history behind the computer. Every time someone points out one machine, it seems another predates it. I mean, ignoring primitive devices like the abacus, slide rule, and other such things, it could be argued that the Greeks invented an early computer with he two millennium old Antikithera mechanism. The geared mechanism’s capacity to calculate celestial events is impressive, and that it was not merely records of a concept, but rather an actual physically constructed mechanical computer, built over 2000 years ago is darned impressive. Even looking at modern times, automated textile looms pioneered the idea of data storage, in the form of punchcards, and player pianos and calliopes made use of punched paper rolls, modern civilization made any attempt to apply such concepts to computation. Charles Babbage’s difference engine designs in the UK, and Ada Lovelace’s early work on algorithms (programs) and her realization that a computational device could use numbers to symbolically represent dang near anything, like text or musical notes, served as the foundation for which all modern computing stands upon.There was Conrad Zuse’s mechanical Z1 in 1938, and relay based Z2 and Z3 built in 1940 and 41, in Germany. Here in the US, we saw the fully electronic (valve based logic and capacitor based refreshed memory) Atanasoff–Berry computer, designed in 1937-38, and built 1941, in Iowa. UK created Colossus during World War II, built around 1943… Yeah, there’s plenty of early computers… You know what they all had in common though?

            No matter how basic they were (glorified calculators), or how complex they were (the true Turing complete systems), the smallest of them took up the space of a desk or refrigerator, and the largest took rooms or buildings to contain.

            In a decade the space program took us out of the era of valves and into the transistorized era, and in half a decade, the US space program took us from transistorized computers to integrated circuits. From discrete components to ceramic surface mount flat packs… From a refrigerator sized computer that either had a single tasked function or toggled cycles on a strict scheduler to serve timeshares, to a computer a about the size of two shoeboxes, that could do realtime priority driven multitasking. Do not underestimate just how significant the technological advancement was from some piece of IBM or HP “Big Iron” to the AGC or the LVDC. The code that drove the AGC was developed by some of the finest minds at MIT in the 1960s. It proved resilient enough to not crash under overload conditions during the Apollo 11 landing. The AGC was a multitasking, 16 bit machine (14 bits, overflow, and parity), running at 2 MHz, with 2K words of RAM, and 36K words of ROM… in 1966! It weighed 70 pounds, but a fair percentage of that mass is because they potted the thing, so vibration of launch couldn’t damage anything inside it.

            This was cutting edge tech from 1966-1975.

            And these chips… You can see the date.

            The Apollo program’s AGC, nor the larger LVDC, were by absolutely no means, even remotely close to being the first computers, but the realtime critical nature of the AGC’s build requirements, and the need to shrink the mass of the vessel created a hard, HARD push towards rapid miniaturization. The exceptional monetary resources spent on developing the infrastructure required to create these miniaturized components paid the way for the facilities, manufacturers and brains to be set in place for when consumer technology was ready to begin utilizing such technology. The US space program ABSOLUTELY accelerated the advent of consumer electronics utilizing the integrated circuit. It absolutely established the foundations for modern multitasking. It absolutely drive manufacturing costs down, and reliability up. it absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, drove technology towards miniaturization, at a rate no one could have dreamed.

            So yeah… Apollo certainly did not result in the first computer, but it did lay the cornerstone for what would ultimately be the foundation of modern computing.

          2. That’s one mighty retcon, as if the space program was the reason to the integrated circuit.

            It was the other way around for the simple reason that you can’t test an emerging technology in a mission critical task. You don’t develop on a system that requires extremely high reliability – you need to have it proven already because a space mission has a million parts that can go wrong. NASA’s use of these technologies was 99.99% application of items already existing on the market.

            The reason why the AGC was the first fully integrated chip computer was because IC technology was extremely expensive and there was no benefit in miniaturizing computers at that level of complexity. You could fit a 70’s mainframe in a suitcase, but it would cost billions and it would have no other immediate use than what a room full of racks were already doing at a much lower cost. This would prevent adoption in anything else than a massively expensive space rocket.

            The general level of technologies follows a social adoption curve which is defined by the need for the people to make a living out of using the technology. They have to be able to apply the technology back into its own making, with some profit, which is something that people who apply “Moore-ism” commonly forget. You can always build something that is way ahead of its time to “break the Moore curve”, but these heroic efforts do not actually yield improvements for the average user of that technology – it’s just a showcase of what could be done if you throw all good business sense in the wind.

            It’s kinda like the case of the guy who decided to try if it’s possible to make a toaster using nothing but caveman level technology and make everything yourself from scratch. Turns out you can, but an actual caveman wouldn’t be having toasters anyways.

          3. >”paid the way for the facilities, manufacturers and brains to be set in place for when consumer technology was ready”

            In reality, the materials were painstakingly built using processes that were not ready for mass-manufacturing, but done anyways because the government was paying any cost to have it. If you’re paying a thousand dollars for a hammer, you can have ICs built individually under a microscope, and have your computer ROMs programmed by women threading hair-thin copper wires through miniature ferrite cores individually in their millions, by hand.

            The development for production at the industry and consumer level was a step not taken at the point of the space program. Very little was actually “set in place” because the ideas that lead to the development already existed before the moonshot, and the ideas and technologies that lead to the consumer adoption of the technology were developed independently of the space program.

            The space program was just one big technology demo in the middle that took the state of the art and pushed it to its limits, kinda like how you’d take an early computer and pull off all the tricks in the book to make a demo program that tricks 4096 colors out of a 16 color display. Sure it’s always possible, but the trick doesn’t generalize into actual use outside of that special case, and in order to actually do that for real needs the underlying technology to develop further on its own.

    3. That money was put towards something actually useful like renewable energy (solar panels), and better rechargeable batteries.

      Both of which have been upgraded since the station was originally launched.

      And that $150 billion is not just launched into space, its spent here on the ground, paid out to everyone that worked on it.

      1. What’s ironic, the ISS originally had better batteries than it has now. They used to have nickel-hydrogen batteries which can withstand tens of thousands of recharge cycles and have a practically unlimited calendar life (20+ years proven), but they replaced them with lithium-ion batteries which will be just about dead by the end of the current mission extension to 2028.

        These were the original batteries:

        They basically went backwards. Instead of paying any effort into developing better Ni-H cells – which is kinda the point for a project like the ISS – they went with commercial lithium cells. Renewable energy storage needs something simple and robust made with earth-abundant materials (=cheap in the long term), and lithium-ion ain’t it.

        1. Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries are nothing secret. They were an advancement of NiCad batteries. Early mobile phones (as in 1990s, early popular ones) used NiCad, then NiMH, then Lithium. Lithium batteries store much more energy per volume or weight. They’re better!

          Probably billions has been spent on research into Lithium cells on Earth. The mobile phone market is big business, and now there are practical electric cars. Look how big Apple grew off mobile phones (admittedly over-priced shitty poser-phones but that’s Apple for you).

          Lithium cells are better, it’s a step forwards. Yeah maybe they’re not as robust over thousands of charge cycles but they still give a decent lifetime. In phones I’ve had, the Lithium battery lasted about 5 years before it stopped holding a charge. Now they don’t even bother making the battery replacable. Which is cunty, but most people don’t own a phone long enough for the battery to ever wear out. For NASA, just ship some new ones up every couple of years. They’re lightweight!

          Actually now I’ve just remembered the lead-acid batteries that 80s phone owners used to carry around like a briefcase. Bet all that lead tested your strength! Fortunately most of those people had strong right arms anyway from constantly masturbating in front of a mirror.

          1. That wasn’t NiMH but Ni-H2 – which is a battery using nickel and gaseous hydrogen.

            In bulk energy storage applications, weight and volume are lesser concerns as long as they’re reasonable. The ISS already had Ni-H batteries for 20 odd years and they were fine. Using lithium cells in a satellite or a space station saves a fraction of the initial launch cost by being lighter, but it ultimately costs more because the lifespan of the batteries in-orbit is less than half, so you have to replace them more than twice as often. They’re not better for the application, and NASA went with commercial Li-Ion cells simply because the ISS is now on end-of-life support and they didn’t want to spend the money. The batteries that are up there now will not be replaced because the station’s going down.

            Same thing holds for the terrestrial application. Lithium batteries in commodity gadgets like cellphones are suitable for the purpose because you throw your phone away every couple years and it’s cheap enough, but for cars and bulk energy storage they are lacking in many qualities such as fire safety, lifespan and cost, and NASA’s use of Li-Ion on the space station has absolutely no contribution to improving any of that.

            Better technologies are needed in that front, and batteries like the old Nickel-Hydrogen battery could be the key to store very large amounts of energy very cheaply, but since NASA is no longer contributing to that development, they’re no longer contributing to the solutions to that problem. They’re just shooting money up the sky.

    4. That $150B number is total cost, including operations.

      If you’re mad about that, it’s worth noting that the NFL’s revenue from 2002 to 2018 totals about $152B (without adjustment for inflation). It costs less to build and run that space station than America spends watching grown-ass men chase a lump of leather. Europe spends about twice as much per year watching grown-ass men chase a different lump of leather. Toss in the money spent on baseball, basketball, hockey, and such, and you could rebuild the ISS — or buy another Apollo program — every two years.

        1. That’s always been kind of a silly argument, though. A transfer of money as wages represents an expenditure of human effort — the fact that the dollar bills keep circulating doesn’t mean that the effort wasn’t wasted. I don’t think that fundamental research and spaceflight are wasted efforts, but that should be argued on the outcomes of that work rather than the economic inevitability of the money being re-spent.

          1. Good point. The value is still here whether it is in being able to machine titanium or make more efficient airplanes and thousands of other things. As opposed to taking money from tax payers, which represents a portion of their life, and burning it.

          2. Well, not so much human effort but 99.99% energy and non-recoverable material resources.

            It would be fine if the space rockets were built like the pyramids in Egypt, where the only cost is food and bits of stone, but the money spent on some thing like the ISS, or indeed a football league, is draining precious resources and blowing them up the sky. If you eat an ice cream, the price of milk goes up a tiny fraction for the rest of the people – because an ice-cream isn’t a productive endeavor that contributes back into its own making. It’s just consumption.

            Of course NASA puts a spin on it to justify the spending and claim that it’s making all sorts of nice things that wouldn’t otherwise have happened (doubtful), but ultimately a space program is all about consumption for the sake of getting paid, just like the ice-cream salesman who does his best to entice you to eat the cone. It’s a luxury born out of a weapons program, sustained by our social complexity, because we have a surplus to throw around and we aren’t collectively wise enough to spend that surplus on things like solving the energy crisis, global warming, or inequality and poverty in our societies. We’d rather have football on TV and space rockets going up the sky.

          3. Rich countries could solve world poverty, fix environmental damage, AND launch rockets into space. We could easily afford to do all of that. We just don’t want to.

            Third world debt is an utter scandal where people starve because their country has to keep paying the minimum interest on loans that they can’t afford to pay the capital of. Even though the lender banks have recouped their money many times over.

            Banks keenly lend money to nutty dictators who declare themselves the ruler of a country. He spends it on palaces and armaments for his men. Then eventually democracy breaks out, and the democratic government is lumbered with a debt taken out by their murderous predecessors. If they don’t keep up the payments the banks will destroy their economy.

            The campaign asking them to drop the debt has been going on for years.

            Honestly, I think the Mafia are more honourable.

          4. Oh okay I was a bit behind. Thanks for the information. That’s really good! Last I heard was when the “Drop the Debt” campaign was in full swing and didn’t seem to be really going anywhere.

            Still I think my point in general stands. The reason for poverty in poor countries is mostly, though not entirely, because rich countries keep robbing them and nicking all their stuff.

          5. “collectively wise enough” solving the energy crisis, global warming, or inequality and poverty in our societies. If only we were not human beings or driven by reproductive success and competition. We are much better at adapting than cooperating. If you had a climate solution that is a well defined engineering challenge, like sun blocking reflectors in space, I can picture i. But getting cooperation from every dictator? One World government? Nah. And “Solve poverty”? The solution is simple, but it goes against those who like to control and gather power.

            You need to design goals that will attract people and work withe the hairless apes instead of aginst them.

          6. >The solution is simple, but it goes against those who like to control and gather power.

            The solution is simple, but it creates the conditions or those who like to control and gather power to take over and subvert everything to their own benefit. Top-down collective action leads to corruption because we’re human.

      1. ” It costs less to build and run that space station than America spends watching grown-ass men chase a lump of leather. ”

        Tu-quoque fallacy. The problem is that in order to to say “It’s not worse than X”, you have to agree that X is already bad, so you basically agree with the premise anyways. It basically goes in the same bin with “Well you’re already drunk, why not do ketamine too!”

          1. No it isn’t. It was implied that playing football is a waste of money, too.

            “watching grown-ass men chase a lump of leather” is a disparaging statement about football with the obvious intention to say “there are worse ways to spend money”. Which reminds me, you could also apply the “worse problems” fallacy.

            Either way, it’s a “two wrongs make a right” type of argument. It does not follow.

          2. Besides, you can genuinely prefer football over space rockets without any contradiction. If there’s a limited amount of resources to spend, you have to set priorities anyways, so trying to justify spending here by spending there doesn’t work.

            It only works in the minds of the people who are spending other people’s money and think it doesn’t affect themselves. I.e. typically some champagne socialist or otherwise highly affluent person who has successfully isolated themselves from the social realities of the 99%.

          3. We’re probably down to the bread and circuses theory of government here. The circus and spectacle of spaceflight is no longer enough to justify it getting much more money than any other circuses, and the people are feeling that the bread, i.e. essential needs, has not been fairly distributed, so that should be sorted out first.

          4. Yeah well, the services economy isn’t bread and circuses but circuses and circuses. In a post-industrial society, wealth distribution is determined by who puts up the most interesting circus – not who bakes the bread, or whether anyone does.

            We can just sell our grain made by a handful of agricultural megacorporations and buy the bread back from China. Of course the Chinese ask more money for the bread than we get from selling the grain, but that doesn’t matter because basic commodities are just economic widgets that are perfectly exchangeable with circus shows – so we can all be circus directors and make big bank!

    5. There may be a point being missed, here, Mike.

      Eventually, folks are going to build a large space craft and sail it around the Solar System, trying to make money. At that time they will either have some idea how to do long duration spaceflight, or not. If they do, they just might make it back alive. And if not, then probably not.

    1. They would have been the logical choice, but they chose not to bid on the commercial module program because they believed the funding NASA was offering wasn’t enough. So Bigelow is going to pursue doing their own independent station instead.

      Arguably, this would be easier for them given their expandable tech. Why build from a bunch of small modules when you can launch one huge inflatable one?

  2. Truly spacefaring civilisation?
    Guess I read too many Peter F. Hamilton & Alastar Reynolds to call this a “truly spacefaring civilisation”. At the moment they still need 40 years to go back to the moon.

    1. Unfortunately the entire Space Programme was just a dick measuring contest between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and after Uncle Sam proved he had the bigger tool most everybody lost interest in manned space, and the interest remains low today, so until somebody can figure out how to make some HUGE money out of space or until China wants to measure their Cosmic Chopstick against the Yankee’s Space Schlong we’re stuck on terra ferma.

    2. In the future, “truly spacefaring civilization” will be applied to the time beginning when we had a permanent base on the moon. Then, human exploration of Mars. Then, a permanent base on Mars. And so on. We won’t be a truly spacefaring civilization until we forget that there was any other way to be.

      1. We won’t be spacefaring til we’re interstellar. You wouldn’t call sitting in your back yard a holiday, would you?

        Of course this is a difficult question and it may be this Universe is not one that supports interstellar travel. So far all we’ve produced on the subject is lots of maths. So then I suppose we might as well just give ourselves a consolation prize for getting to Mars, and maybe some Jovian moons.

        Then at least the only known life in the Universe won’t blink out if an asteroid hits us. Once the Martians are a properly self-sufficient and growing civilisation. If you don’t mind a completely indoor life where you have to put a pressure suit on to go outside.

        Maybe in 100 years some principle will be discovered that makes it all obvious. The early Victorians did well with just steam. Very inefficient but they just chucked loads of money, effort, and coal at their problems and got them defeated. We’re now starting to hit fundamental limits for computing power, engineering, etc. Once we have nano-tech perfected there’s nowhere smaller to go. And we’re getting better and better at that all the time. We’re starting to hit fundamental limits, for the first time in history.

        Where the fuck are you supposed to get negative energy from!?!?

      2. I think a “truly spacefaring civilisation” would be one with elements in space that don’t call Earth their home. Even if they still need resupply from elsewhere (initially Earth, but hopefully that would get spread out).

  3. Why replace the existing station with more of the same? Why not a design capable of at least a little artificial gravity, at least in part of the station? Lack of any gravity is causing the astronauts some real problems.
    And shouldn’t some things, like satellite repair and space junk capture, be built into the space station?

      1. Sadly the only way we currently know of to create artificial gravity is by rotating a body to create a centrifugal force that acts the same ( with the addition of a Coriolis effect as you would walk, more noticeable when the radius of rotation is smaller. Imagine your head going at a different speed than your feet)
        It would be simpler if we just discovered how to generate gravity.

        1. We KNOW how to generate gravity. One of the things that Einstein concluded was that you can’t tell the difference between a force crated by gravity and one created by acceleration. The way you create gravity is by putting two very large masses close together. In practice, this is difficult. We can also produce a force indistinguishable from gravity by continuously accelerating the platform on which we desire gravity. But even that is far more difficult than building a rotating structure that creates a continuous acceleration without requiring continuous power. So that’s just the easier way. Why is it “sad” that this is the “only” way?

          1. As Randy mentioned, Coriolis effect is one sad factor. On the sort of small scale we build spaceships, rotating them produces crap “gravity” with lots of side-effects. The “gravity” would increase or decrease depending on which direction objects and people were moving in. Seasickness would likely be a big problem.

            There’s also all the bearings and slipping joints you’d need to allow some parts to rotate. Slipping yet extremely airtight. Unless you spin the whole thing, which makes it more difficult for things like engines and comms / sensor antennas to work. You’d need very long booms to attach the gravity-bits with the centre of the ship, with corridors to attach them. Since you really want a slower rpm at a greater distance rather than the other way round. It’s a pain in the arse.

            On real long-term missions it might be necessary, thinking of the crippled state some cosmonauts came back in, collapsing after they left the Soyuz capsule back on Earth and needing weeks in hospital. OTOH vitamin D and particular exercise can partially mitigate the effects of 0G.

            Actually a question… Imagine a spaceship that’s a long cylinder, split into 2 parts, say 1/3 and 2/3 of the length. The back part doesn’t spin, and that’s where the engines and antennas go. The front part rotates for “gravity”.

            Relative to each other, they’re both rotating. So do they both get half the gravity? But what if the back part is stationary relative to the rest of the Universe? Or at least, say, nearby stars and planets. It was launched from the Moon with the front part already rotating and the back part not doing since it was attached to the ground. So it hasn’t had a chance to just “start” spinning.

            Yet relative to each other they spin. So how does that work?

          2. What you’re missing is that rotation is a form of acceleration. Things behave in a relative manner only in reference to an inertial frame of reference, that is, one that is not accelerating. Any platform that’s accelerating will exhibit “gravity” effects, and any platform that’s rotating will exhibit rotary dynamics. So while the ship as a whole has a linear velocity that’s only meaningful when referenced to some other object, rotation is its own reference. You can know whether or not a platform is rotating solely from measurements taken on the platform. So on your hypothetical ship, one half actually IS rotatating, and the other really isn’t.

          3. Equivalence is only true for infinite flat body. Around the solar system it isn’t hard to tell accelerating frames from gravitational attraction to a celestial body.

  4. This whole thing makes no sense to me. Is there no advantage to building on what we already have in orbit? Can’t a new “backbone” be added, then modules removed from the original one as their individual usefulness diminishes? Young engineers always want to trash the old stuff and start from fresh, but I think this is sometimes the stupid way. There’s nothing obsolete about a truss structure. I’ve lived in houses that are over a hundred years old, and guess what? They have modern plumbing, electricity, and even modern communications wiring.

        1. Actually… sorry to post a somewhat sensible reply, but… How about space stations having a double skin, with pressurised liquid rubber stuff in between? I think that’s used in some tyres. Getting it to set in a vacuum is a problem for the chemists.

          Maybe it could be a 2-part system like epoxy, with a thin membrane between, so if something punctures the craft’s skin, it also punctures the membrane and the two substances mix and harden.

          1. UV setting stuff may work, for half the orbit anyway. But yes, definitely should be some way to arrange self sealing, even if it’s just like radiator stop leak where you have globby particles that just jam the hole. Possibly something sitting in a solvent that keeps it pliable/conformable so when that solvent goes bye-bye it hardens up. Then you’d probably want to have several cells of it, with telltales like valvestem tire pressure indicators to tell you when one needs topping up.

      1. I think my 127 year old house has probably been cumulatively stressed more than the ISS. But when the roof gets leaky, I don’t demolish the house; I replace the roof. ISS was built to be modular, and modules were meant to be removed and replaced as necessary. Even if the basic truss structure is in danger of failing from fatigue (do you have any reason to think it is???), then this is why I suggest building an additional truss, and phasing over to it.

        1. It’s kinda like a car. Sure, you can replace parts, but since all the major components are equally old, there comes a time when you have to replace everything in a relatively short span of time. That constant breaking down and bodge after bodge starts to cost you money simply by the inconvenience of it, and you’re better off buying an entirely different car.

          Things have a design life. Even the plastic tarp inside your home’s wall meant to stop air leaks and heat loss becomes brittle by age, cracks, and starts to leak. Even the staples used to nail it down rust and leave leaking holes – leading to moisture collecting in the insulation and mold. After 30-40 years, homes built like this have to be torn down to the frame or the people inside will gradually get sick, and by that point it’s cheaper to just bulldoze it to the ground and start anew.

          1. It’s not like a car, it’s component modules vary wildly in age. Why not what Jim says? Disconnect the oldest bits and replace them. ISS has been modular from the start, that’s why it’s even possible. Send up some replacements for the vital parts, some of the less important parts can be scrapped or just abandoned, like leave them attached for their solar panels, but seal them off airtight and don’t go in there any more. It’s got a great big robot arm and airtight doors on every module!

            Orbital construction is always worth getting a bit more practice in, as is maintenance and low-level hardware. In theory the ISS could go on forever like the Ship of Theseus. Was that ever a design aim? Or was it planned to scrap it once the core modules got old? Actually with political short-termism and an unreliable budget it’s possible NASA just planned to go whichever way the wind blew.

            Just bugs me, and lots of us I’m sure, to see all that beautiful stuff up there in space, even if just barely, knowing how many missions and how much effort and brains, on the ground and in orbit, went into making it all a reality, hearing they’re gonna scrap it.

            Maybe Axiom can keep the solar panels and some of the lower-tech stuff. Maybe.

          2. Let me rephrase: similar in age.

            The ISS main structure was constructed between 1998 – 2001 and the rest was added between 2007-2009. The core modules of the station are almost equally old and have to be replaced essentially at once, leaving the rest of the station in pieces until these modules are rebuilt, because it all has to come apart to replace the oldest bits.

            Then just five or six ears later you have to pull the station apart again because the rest of the modules need replacing almost all at once. It would cost far less to build a new station entirely instead of trying to hop-scotch with bits and pieces of the old.

          3. Sure it might be more economical to send up a new one for the purpose of maintaining having a space station. Just seems a shame to let 420 tonnes of high-tech stuff burn up into dust. Actually I suppose they’d have to sepaarte all the modules to do that, you don’t want some bloke in Australia complaining about the bloody space station NASA sent down to crash into his barn.

            But anyway… I just think future spacemen could do something useful to salvage much of the stuff that’s conveniently already in orbit. Would cost a lot of money to launch all that again, and the ISS spent most of it’s time compromised in some way or having new modules killed off on the drawing board by the accountants.

            So take all that useful metal and insulation and solar panels and the rest, and park it somewhere future spacemen will be glad to find it. Would give moon settlers a big boost before they’ve got their mining and metal processing up and running.

        2. Thing is in space metals “weld” together. Some parts might not even be removable if they weren’t designed to be from the get go. I’m sure the main truss system is stressed and showing its age, its travelling pretty fast and the heating cooling cycles stress the metal as well.

  5. It’ll be a shame if they let the ISS burn up. Couldn’t they dump it in one of those parking orbits people are always dumping their dead satellites in? Whether it’s worn out or not it’s still 420 tonnes of high-tech stuff up there where there’s otherwise vacuum.

    Drag it to the Moon one day. When there’s a moon base. They can refurb it with their engineering facility, take the modules apart and bury them in moon concrete if that’s what they do there. All those expensive alloys and tanks and pumps and life support stuff, dishes and telescopes, not to mention a vast array of solar panels. These would be a fantastic boon if you could bring them down to the Moon softly. Maybe some sort of airbag system where it’s covered in them, then gently brought down through lower and lower orbits. Since there’s no atmosphere to burn it up, it should be possible to land if if you could get it’s velocity down.

    Even if they have to loop it round Phobos or something, NASA are good at coming up with clever ways of altering orbits.

    Just attach some rockets to the thing and do it by remote control. Or even on-board control up til the last part where it’s close enough that there’s no radio delay for remote control.

    Even if they don’t use it for decades, still, park it up somewhere safe. And on top of all that, repairing, refurbishing, and maybe some patch-up jobs are skills future spacemen are going to need if they’re going on long journeys. Apollo 13 was a fantastic example of that. Rather than sending up pristine stuff each time, let them perform proper, reliable fixes.

    Actually Skylab was another good example. One of it’s solar panel “wings” and a load of insulation tore off during launch. So they sent the astronauts up with a big parasol sort of apparatus. A few days after deploying it, the station was cool enough to be habitable, so the crew could leave the Apollo ship they came up in. The second crew brought up an even bigger thermal blanket. The third crew went on strike! First time that’s ever happened in space and surely well worth studying! I think it’s cos their ’70s hair got too long and inspired rebellion.

    1. As with lots of things, it’s a question of money.
      ISS is in such a low orbit that it get’s dragged down and will fall within just a few years without intervention.
      It is boosted to a somewhat higher orbit every now and then just to keep it up high enough. This boosting is sometimes timed with avoiding space debris.

      I have not looked very deep into this, but I assume this is the most “economical” setup. ISS has to be visited quite often for re-supply etc. and each spacecraft has to reach it. A higher orbit will mean more fuel to burn for any spacecraft that wants to visit ISS.

      Sending ISS to the moon would require a lot more energy. You have put enough kinetic energy into it to overcome the LaGrange point. If you want to know more, go play Kerbal Space Program.

      1. Sure LEO makes sense for the reasons you give, resupply missions are common. Plus Earth observation is one of it’s jobs. But if they’re scrapping it, it doesn’t need resupply. One of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points might be a good place to park it, actually. Assuming the effort of launching the fuel and engines needed to get it there isn’t more effort than it took to launch the ISS in the first place. Then it’s stable and out of everybody’s hair.

        Getting the ISS to the Moon would be more easily done by craft which come from the Moon. Which get their fuel from there and take off and land there. A working moonbase would have craft like that, it’s part of a lot of the various plans people put forward for one. Since launching fuel itself takes more fuel, etc, 1/6 gravity will mean a much smaller ship can do the job, or at least that launching it won’t be a tremendous effort. The Lunar Modules from Apollo all took off from the Moon and flew back here. Their engines were nothing compared to the Saturn V it took to get them up there.

        Besides the big help it’d provide for the Clangers, the research in refurbing it will be invaluable, and will need to be done anyway for any long-term manned missions away from Earth orbit.

        I suppose the ultimate question is how hard would it be to get a booster up there that can send it to L4 or L5. From the point of view of getting useful stuff to the Moon though it’s obviously going to be much cheaper than to launch the same amount of stuff up from Earth from scratch.

        Then again NASA don’t have long-term budgets for the big things, neither do governments. So politically whose state you build the booster in is going to be more inportant than the forces of gravity.

        Maybe we can get Elon Musk, the big South African dickhead, to do the job, if we let him keep it. He can sell it back to NASA when they’re ready to bring it to the Moon, or he could even take it there himself. We could staple him to the front, like a figurehead.

        1. The L points aren’t entirely stable. It’s kinda like balancing over a large hill – it’s flat at the top, but if you veer off to the sides you start to slip faster and faster.

          You could park the ISS to a higher orbit above 1000 km or so, and it would take a century to fall back, but the main reason it is at such a low altitude is because its protected from other flying stuff that get dragged down by the thin remains of the atmosphere. LEO is clean space because stuff can’t stay up there for long. If you park it in higher orbits, it will also be subject to higher levels of radiation that slowly degrade the materials.

          1. No, the Lunar Module landed on one rocket engine. Then when it was time to go home, the top half detached and flew back into orbit with it’s own rocket engine, which had come down as part of the whole thing during descent. So an ascent stage stacked on top of a descent stage, and on top of all that, the bit the crew lived in for a few days. The lower half of the lander acted as the launchpad for the upper half, as well as carrying the engine and fuel for descent.

            The Lunar Module stack was pre-assembled on Earth and flew up in the same Saturn V the Command And Service module did. In orbit, the CSM detached from the front of the top bit of the Saturn, turned 180, then docked with the LM which had been stored just underneath it under a sort of housing / faring. They docked by joining their airlocks, pointed toward the Moon, then took off there under the CSM’s power.

            The fuel was hypergolic, it’s most important feature. Meaning it would ignite as soon as the two components met each other, didn’t need any tricky ignition systems.

            Anyway my point was, just a small ascent engine on the Lunar Modules was enough to get them into Moon orbit. That 0.83G saving really adds up quickly for all the fuel you don’t need to lift. If we bother setting up a lunar base, things could sprint ahead from there. If there’s anything you can think of to do.

    2. I really would like to see the accounting that proves it would be more expensive to park the ISS in a Lagrangian point, or even on the Moon, for future use (i.e. having still those parts available for research and upcycling – and thus not needing to pay for putting the equivalent weight of all that equipment into Space all over again) rather than just burning it up in the atmosphere…

  6. Why does the new space station look just like the old space station? Why not use a more robust power system than solar?
    Can’t we do something more advanced that connecting metal cylinders together?

    1. Because there’s shitloads of sunlight up there, and it’s safe and cheap? Propane just wouldn’t be practical. The vast RTG you’d need would be a serious disposal hazard, and the poor astronauts suffer enough without irradiating them.

      Metal cylinders fit nicely on top of rockets, which are cylinders, rather than say trapezohedrons. We connect them together because the alternative would be sending it up as one giant piece on the sort of rocket that would incinerate a continent. If you’ve got better ideas, let the world know.

    2. You need to send it to space. So, by now, the most efficient way of doing so is to use most of the space inside a cylindrical space launcher.
      Solar power is good. There is alternatives, but you need to take in account something : space is cold, but the only hear transfer is by radiation, not convection. This means that cooling is hard, and using a GPHS-RTG (General Purpose Heat Source-Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) / MMRTG (Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) may be possible but needs special planning for waste disposal, taking extra care of leaks, and all in all may not produce that much usable energy for the efforts needed (300W of electricity and 4KW of heat for the GPHS-RTG)
      Cylinders are good in themself. You need to deal with different pressure between inside and outside. So a cylinder is worst than spheres, but better than cubes.

  7. Unfortunately, the ISS has a flaw. It is in the wrong orbit. Its inclination that takes it over Russia is not the best for further exploration. It really needs to orbit the Earth at the Equator, or along the Ecliptic (the plane of the solar system). (edit: is there a better orbit?) This would reduce the energy required for continued flights toward the moon or mars. I don’t know how much energy it would take to modify the ISS’s orbit to one of these, but it would likely be prohibitive.

    1. The current orbit – both elevation and inclination – were optimized for easy and inexpensive access from Earth. The amount of material that had to be brought up there in the first place, and the continuous resupply requirements, necessitated that. But orbits can be changed, if and when required. The bulk of ISS’s value is in having a microgravity laboratory available for long-term experiments, and the orbit wasn’t that important for this. For missions that require a “fuel stop” for high delta-V of a large mass for access to other planets, these are better addressed by dedicated spacecraft. A facility that is designed as a microgravity laboratory isn’t going to be the best choice for an orbital launch platform. Space stations aren’t one-size-fits-all.

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