Nasa has issued an urgent instruction cancelling all future ‘tourist’ visits to the International Space Station, and has announced preliminary plans for the breakup of the station into separate modules prior to retrieval or deorbiting.
The shock announcement came as further cracks in the Russian-built Zarya module threatened to compromise the integrity of the orbiting outpost. First described as “superficial fissures” in 2021, the cracks were observed to widen since 2028, when the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, also decided not to renew their participation in the international space project.
“The Russian segments have always been the most problematic,” said a space official who did not want to be named. “Their modules were designed in the Soviet era, and have had many ‘upgrades’ and repairs to stay serviceable.” Space watchers will remember another incident in 2021, when the newly docked Nauka module fired its thrusters autonomously, throwing the entire ISS briefly out of control.
Now it appears that the future of the Space Station as the largest habitat in orbit is in doubt. Even if the troublesome Russian modules can be safely detached, and sent crashing into the ocean, the viability of the remaining section will be questionable. Nasa has always had end-of-life scenarios for the ISS, which included retrieving valuable modules with SpaceX Starships, as well as ditching less important pieces, allowing them to burn up in the atmosphere or be buried at sea. Another option was relocating some segments to the Lunar Gateway orbiting the Moon.
Whatever the final decision, it’s unlikely the Russians will have any say in the matter. Since Roscosmos pulled out, their section has had the most air leaks and electronic glitches and has not been used for crew quarters. Nasa would not confirm when the current crew of the ISS would be evacuated, or if mission specialists aboard Starships would supervise the breakup, but watch this space!