SpaceX Awarded Contract for ISS Deorbit Vehicle by NASA

By Lydia Amazouz Published on June 27, 2024 07:00
SpaceX Awarded Contract for ISS Deorbit Vehicle by NASA

NASA has awarded SpaceX a contract to develop a spacecraft designed to safely deorbit the International Space Station (ISS), marking a significant milestone in the planned retirement of the station by the end of the decade.

This decision underscores the importance of ensuring a safe and controlled decommissioning process for the ISS, a critical component of international space collaboration for over two decades.

Details of the Contract and Mission Objectives

On June 26, NASA announced that it had awarded SpaceX a contract valued at up to $843 million to develop the United States Deorbit Vehicle (USDV). This specialized spacecraft will dock with the ISS and perform the necessary maneuvers to ensure a controlled reentry, targeting a remote ocean area such as the South Pacific.

Unlike other ISS missions managed by private companies, NASA will own and operate the USDV. Ken Bowersox, NASA associate administrator for space operations, emphasized the significance of this project, stating, “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 operation.”

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Design Considerations and Reliability

While SpaceX has not disclosed specific design details of the USDV, it is expected that the vehicle will be based on the existing Dragon spacecraft, known for its reliability in cargo and crew transportation. NASA's contract solicitation highlighted the critical need for a vehicle with high reliability and sufficient redundancy.

The vehicle must function effectively on its first flight and have robust anomaly recovery capabilities to execute the critical deorbit burn. This emphasis on reliability is crucial given the complexity and importance of safely deorbiting the ISS, which has been a hub for international cooperation and scientific research.

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Evaluating Alternatives and Rationale

NASA's decision to pursue a controlled deorbit was based on extensive evaluations of various alternatives. A white paper released by the agency concluded that deorbiting the ISS at the end of its life is the safest and only viable method for decommissioning.

Other options, such as dismantling the station and returning components to Earth, boosting it to a higher orbit, or repurposing it in orbit, were ruled out for technical and logistical reasons. Handing the station over to a commercial operator was also deemed infeasible, partly because the station's components are owned by multiple nations.

Timeline and Future Considerations

The deorbiting of the ISS is scheduled for around 2030, although the contract includes provisions for storing the USDV on the ground until the mid-2030s if necessary. This flexibility allows for potential extensions of the ISS's operational life if there are no commercial low Earth orbit destinations ready to support NASA's ongoing needs by 2030.

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NASA Administrator Bill Nelson highlighted the urgency and importance of the mission during an April hearing of the House Science Committee, noting, “We don’t know what the president of Russia is going to do, and we could be in an emergency situation that we have to get this structure that is as big as a football stadium down, and down safely, in 2031.”

This contract with SpaceX represents a pivotal step in ensuring the safe and responsible transition from the ISS to future low Earth orbit destinations. As NASA and its partners move forward, the development of the USDV by SpaceX will be closely monitored as a key component of this transition, ensuring the continued advancement of international space exploration and cooperation.

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An editor specializing in astronomy and space industry, passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the universe and the technological advances that propel space exploration.

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