SpaceX Wins Contract For International Space Station Disposal

The International Space Station. Image credit: NASA

NASA selects Elon Musk’ SpaceX to build deorbit vehicle for International Space Station at the end of its operational life

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has won a lucrative contract to destroy the International Space Station (ISS) when it reaches the end of its operational life.

US space agency NASA announced that “SpaceX has been selected to develop and deliver the US Deorbit Vehicle that will provide the capability to deorbit the space station and ensure avoidance of risk to populated areas.”

The ISS was constructed by a partnership of five space agencies including European countries (represented by ESA), the United States (NASA), Japan (JAXA), Canada (CSA) and Russia (Roscosmos).

Operational lifespan

It was designed in the 1980s and constructed between 1998 and 2011.

The ISS is the largest space station ever constructed, and is the size of a football pitch.

But as the ISS ages, it is becoming more difficult and costly to maintain, and is difficult or sometimes impossible to upgrade.

The end of the operational lifespan of the ISS has been slated for 2030, but it could last years beyond that.

The United States, Japan, Canada, and the participating countries of ESA have committed to operating the ISS through 2030. Russia has committed to continued station operations through at least 2028.

The safe deorbit of the International Space Station is the responsibility of all five space agencies.

The harsh reality is that it is more cost effective for NASA to utilise a new facility from a third party, as space stations are currently being developed by a number of commercial entities.

The Jeff Bezos space venture Blue Origin is planning its own station known as Orbital Reef, and is working with Sierra Space, Boeing and Amazon.

Axiom Space meanwhile is said to be developing its Axiom Station, and Voyager Space also has its Starlab complex in development.

Meanwhile Vast Space plans to launch its Haven-1 module to orbit in 2025.

US Deorbit vehicle

So as the ISS nears the end of its operational life, NASA said it is “crucial to prepare for the safe and responsible deorbit of the International Space Station in a controlled manner after the end of its operational life in 2030.”

NASA confirmed that SpaceX has been selected to develop and deliver the US Deorbit Vehicle, in a contract worth up to $843 million (not including launch costs for the US Deorbit Vehicle, which is subject to a future procurement).

“Selecting a US 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 operations,” said Ken Bowersox, associate administrator for Space Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“This decision also supports NASA’s plans for future commercial destinations and allows for the continued use of space near Earth,” said Bowersox. “The orbital laboratory remains a blueprint for science, exploration, and partnerships in space for the benefit of all.”