NASA OIG report outlines precarious future of International Space Station

A new report issued by the NASA OIG voices concerns surrounding ISS decommission. The International Space Station is set to retire soon, and the agency itself doesn’t have a successor in the works.

The NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) is a federal watchdog agency that investigates how NASA manages funds. The Agency published a report on Tuesday, November 30, sharing its analysis of funding related to the International Space Station. The report confirmed rising systems maintenance costs, concerns regarding the future of health research for astronauts, and issues regarding the longevity of the ISS.

The 20-year-old International Space Station is currently set to retire by 2024, although this date will likely get pushed back to 2030. Costing roughly $3 billion per year, the OIG reported that overall ISS and maintenance costs have stayed roughly the same for FY 2016 through FY 2020, at around $1 billion. However, systems maintenance and upgrade costs have steadily increased over this five-year period by a rate of 35% to $169 million. This is indicative of more recent upgrades to the space station. Additionally, Astronauts onboard the ISS have been dealing with leaks on the Zvezda service module, and more recently superficial cracks on the Zarya module. The OIG reports that the issues on Zvezda might indicate the need to decommission it, which has broad implications for the rest of the Space Station.

“Notably, based on the models NASA used to assess the structure, the cracks should not have occurred, suggesting the possibility of an earlier-than-projected obsolescence for at least one element of the Station”

The report also takes a look at research conducted on the ISS to study and mitigate health risks that astronauts would face on long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars. Health risks include possible increased risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and various mental disorders. NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) studies these health risks utilizing data collected on the ISS. The OIG warns that even with an extension to 2030, HRP would not be able to fully study these health concerns for future Lunar and Martian missions. NASA would either have to lower its mitigation standards, procure data through other means, or extend mission timelines.

The last section of the OIG report focuses on post-ISS commercial space stations. Currently, NASA plans to transition to one or more commercial stations in low Earth orbit by 2028, which would allow for a two-year overlap period with the anticipated decommission of the ISS in 2030. The OIG report voiced concerns that if NASA is unable to provide LEO destinations before ISS decommission, there could be a gap period for crewed launches. With potentially years without microgravity research, this could mean large delays for mission timelines to the Moon or Mars.

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