Why the $200 billion ISS could DIE soon (and HOW to avoid it)
August 14, 2010

The real cost (so far) of the ISS is unknow, or, much likely, very hard to calculate, but, a reasonable evaluation, says that the ISS costed over $100 billion only to develop, build, launch and assemble it in orbit, while, other evaluations (that includes the Earth-based fixed costs to support it, the ISS-devoted NASA, ESA and Russia employees, the astroanuts training, the ISS resupply and crew rotation, etc.) boost the total ISS "price" (so far) to over $170 billion, so, if we inlcude the latest hardware and Shuttle launches costs to finish it and (now that its life has been assured, at least, until 2020) all the fixed costs, resupply, crew rotation and experiments for the next ten years, the ISS "price" could likely reach a grand total of over $200 billion at the end of 2020.

Whether you like the ISS, or not (around the ISS there are two strong factions, pro and against it) the ISS surely is the ONLY existing asset of this kind that, all the space agencies, their countries and the entire mankind, have in the Space, also, due to the Shuttle retirement, the high costs of a space station, the deep economy crisis and the lack of a (big payloads) HLV until the end of the next decade, it's highly unlikely that the space agencies and their countries (excluding the, planned small space station to be built by China) will decide to and/or could do and/or will find enough money to develop, build and launch another (smaller, bigger or even similar) space station for the next 20 years.

Unfortunately, like all things made by humans, also the ISS isn't perfect and has already had several little and big issues in its brief life (the first ISS module was launched just 12 years ago and the first ISS crew started its mission less than 10 years ago) all solved, so far, but that, in some cases, have created so great concerns for crew's safety by being close to the decision to evacuate quickly, completely and definitively the ISS.

The Shuttle retirement, next year, will already have the consequence of a great limitation of the use and upgrade of the ISS, since, without the Shuttle fleet, no new, big, modules can be never added, no big upgrades, no big experiments can be sent to the ISS nor bring back them to Earth and, most important, no big repairs nor replacement of big ISS parts can be done, so, if something too big and and wrong will happen in the next ten years the $200 billion ISS must be ONLY quickly evacuated and, likely, forever!!!

After the Shuttle retirement, for over SIX years, all the (american and non-american) ISS crews can be sent to the ISS or bring back to Earth or evacuated (if necessary) ONLY with the russian Soyuz, then, if lucky, from 2016 (+ delays) there should be some government and "commercial" alternatives like the "rescue-Orion", the SpaceX Dragon and other "commercial crew vehicles", but, NONE OF THEM, with the size, the internal space, the cargo and the operational capabilities of a Space Shuttle!!!

So, if, after the last Shuttle flight the ISS will have a SEVERE malfunction, in the next six years, that will force the crew to EVACUATE the ISS, could, the ISS, be repaired, later, using ONLY the Soyuz and the Progress?

Or, if that will happen after 2016, could, the ISS, be repaired using ONLY the SpaceX Dragon and the Orbital Sciences Cygnus, Pepsi-cans?

The answer, to both questions, clearly is a big "NO", since, ONLY the Shuttle cargo-bay has the capabilities to carry big spare parts (like new modules, new life support systems, solar arrays, etc.) to the ISS and ONLY the Shuttle could bring back to Earth big and heavy modules for repair and upgrade.

And that will be much worse if the ISS will have a fatal malfunction in its life support system or in its energy sources and storage or if it will lose part or all its pressurization, since, ONLY the Shuttles have enough space and life support in its crew cabin for 6-8 astronauts/repairmen for OVER 2 WEEKS, its robotarm (the ISS robotarm can be driven only from inside the ISS) an airlock for EVAs (and support for up to FOUR astronauts in EVA at the same time) the cargo-bay, to carry spare parts and repair tools, etc.

In other words, if, after the Shuttle retirement, the $200 billion ISS will have a severe and fatal malfunction and needs to be evacuated, that will be likely FOREVER and, if the ISS can't be repaired with Soyuz or Dragon the $200 billion international investment in Space (and the risks taken by over 500 astronauts in over ten years) will be thrown in a trash can!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The ONLY WAY to avoid the risk to LOSE the ISS and its $200 billion investment, is to keep the full Shuttle fleet in service and modify the Orbiters to fly (also but not only) CREWLESS (as I've suggested exactly FIVE YEARS AGO in this article) to/from the ISS two-three times per year until 2020 and over, everytime, remaining docked to the ISS for 4-6 months, to be ready to work also as "lifeboat" for the crew, if necessary.

Please note that: 1. modify the Shuttles to fly (also) CREWLESS isn't costly nor long nor complex, since, great part of the Shuttle flight, ALREADY IS automated and computer controlled and the Shuttles ALREADY HAVE an (optional) electronic system that allows them to return to Earth and land on the runway without a crew, and... 2. the Shuttles have a 16-17 days max life support ONLY if that life support is USED by a crew that lives inside it, while, if a Shuttle is docked to the ISS as lifeboat and its crew uses the ISS life support, a Shuttle (as is now or slightly modified) could remain in Space several months, that, also thanks to the ISS-to-Shuttle connector, that can send the ISS solar arrays energy to the docked Shuttle.

But, how much costs keep the Shuttle in service (with great part of the Shuttle workers and the full astronauts' corps) for further nine years, from 2012 to 2020?

The standard Shuttle program (four to six flights per year all crewed) costs over $3 billion per year, but, launch only two Shuttle per year (for ISS resupply and as ISS lifeboat) without crews and with a resized group of Shuttle workers, should cost less than $1.5 billion per year, or only $13.5 billion between 2012 and 2020.

And, most important, how and where NASA might find these funds???

Well, over $3.5 billion can be found, deleting the very expensive CRS program, since, the Shuttle fleet, can carry EVERY YEAR (from 2012) more cargo payloads (and bigger) than the ENTIRE twenty missions of the full CRS program from 2014.

Also, if the Shuttles will be used (also) as ISS lifeboat there is no need of (then, can be deleted) the rescue-Orion program that should cost over $6 billion ONLY for R&Dfurther $2-6 billion to build and launch an unknown number of rescue-Orion between 2016 and 2020.

The reasons, why, 5 years ago, I've suggested to MODIFY the Shuttle to fly CREWLESS, is that it is (now) a too old and dangerous vehicle (by design) especially from lift-off to the orbit, so, the risk to lose another crew in the next ten years is very high, but, if the Shuttles will be modified to be (also) SAFER than now, for the crew, the Shuttle fleet could be used, also in the next ten years, to carry the astronauts to the ISS, then, saving (also) over $2 billion that NASA must/will pay to Russia for the Soyuz "seats" and the $6 billion that NASA must award, in the next years, to new.space companies for the "commercial crew program".


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