I don't know why it took me by surprise to learn that NASA has a transition plan for the ISS. In other words, they're gonna bring it down by 2030. Am I the only one that just kind of assumed it'd always be up there? Like, even if we go back to the Moon and build a colony to prep for Mars, and then go to Mars and start colonizing there, I figured the ISS would continue to be a presence in the night sky for a long time to come. Maybe reduced to an interplanetary rest stop, or a place to check your covid status before re-entering Earth, but it'd be there.
But now that I think about it, the stresses on the ISS are pretty extreme. The internal pressure is constantly pushing outwards like a swimming pool full of water. It orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, so every 45 minutes for over 20 years it's been moving in and out of sunlight, temperatures varying by nearly 600°. And even though there's shielding against micrometeors, there's crap everywhere (even without Russia blowing up its own satellites) so does the outside of the ISS look like a pincushion? And let's not forget the radiation.
Given all that, a thousand other things I can't even imagine, and considering you can't exactly just start pulling walls and other core components off the ISS to replace them, it does make sense that it'd have a limited lifespan. Still... took me by surprise. There's a whole transition report that outlines what they're gonna do before and after too. I thought this chart was particularly interesting.
The orbit will decrease for a few years and then a few vehicles will dock with the ISS and guide it down. I assume they're guiding it. I really hope the idea isn't to just let it burn up. It belongs in a museum.
Maybe the reason it hit me so hard was that I realized we're all part of history in the making right now. Like the first ship or the first plane or the first rocket, the first space station seems like a technological marvel right now. But in the future, private institutions will take what was learned and make it more standardized, more replicable... more mundane.
The next few short years will see the end of humanity's very first space station, and then if they do bring it down in one piece (will all the countries demand their own parts back?) it'll end up on display somewhere as a quaint example of where humanity started, before we moved further out and further on. We'll tell future generations, "Yeah, I used to stand outside and watch it actually fly overhead. I watched those recorded transmissions live on TV. I watched some of the first spacewalks being broadcast back to Earth." And then we'll be gone, and a hundred years from now they'll read about it in a history book like we read about the Wright brothers' plane now.
If you're interested in checking out more space-related resources, especially if you want to write a program that has to do with space, check out these APIs I wrote about.