NASA Gives SpaceX $843 Million To Dump the International Space Station in a ‘Spacecraft Cemetery’

By: Sam Watanuki | Published: Jun 28, 2024

NASA has taken a significant step by awarding SpaceX a $843 million contract. The mission? Safely deorbit the International Space Station (ISS).

This decision marks a historic partnership aimed at ensuring the ISS’s controlled reentry and splashdown, avoiding any risk to populated areas.

The ISS's Long Journey

Since its launch in 1998, the ISS has been a cornerstone of space exploration. Orbiting Earth for over two decades, it has hosted countless scientific experiments and international collaborations.

The International Space Station seen above Earth in space.

Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

As it approaches the end of its operational life around 2030, a safe disposal plan becomes essential.

Too Big To Burn

Weighing a colossal 900,000 pounds, the ISS is too massive to fully burn up upon reentry.

A photograph of the Sun

Source: Freepik

A controlled deorbit is crucial to prevent any large debris from crashing unpredictably on Earth’s surface. SpaceX’s U.S. Deorbit Vehicle (USDV) will play a vital role in this mission.

Developing the USDV

SpaceX will develop the USDV over several years, ensuring it meets the stringent requirements for this delicate task.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 on a launchpad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2016.

Source: SpaceX/Wikimedia Commons

The spacecraft will be designed to bring the ISS back to Earth safely, minimizing risks to human life and property. Testing and fine-tuning will be key aspects of this development phase.

International Collaboration

NASA isn’t alone in this endeavor. Canada’s CSA, Japan’s JAXA, and the European Space Agency (ESA) have all committed to supporting the ISS until 2030.

An up-close look at the top of Boeing’s Starliner craft seen in the daytime.

Source: NASA/Joel Kowsky/Wikimedia Commons

Russia’s Roscosmos will continue its involvement until at least 2028, highlighting the global cooperation that has defined the ISS’s mission.

Spacecraft Cemetery

The term “spacecraft cemetery” refers to the remote oceanic area where decommissioned satellites and space stations are safely deorbited.

A blue seawater seen underneath a clear blue sky.

Source: Sarah Brown/Unsplash

This ensures that no debris harms populated areas. The ISS will join other retired spacecraft in this underwater graveyard, marking the end of an era.


Ken Bowersox's Vision

Ken Bowersox, associate administrator for Space Operations Mission Directorate at NASA, emphasizes the importance of a safe transition.

An image of the International Space Station floating above Earth

Source: Wikimedia

He stated, “This decision supports NASA’s plans for future commercial destinations and allows for the continued use of space near Earth.” The focus is on ensuring a responsible end to the ISS’s mission.


Future of Low Earth Orbit

With the ISS’s decommissioning, NASA aims to encourage the development of private space stations.

A satellite in orbit directly above Earth.

Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

This transition will reduce NASA’s annual $3.1 billion operational cost for the ISS, opening up opportunities for commercial ventures and new research platforms in low Earth orbit.


Private Space Stations on the Horizon

Several private space stations are in the works, promising exciting new opportunities. Projects like Orbital Reef and Axiom Space’s Axiom Station aim to create mixed-use business parks in space.

A satellite hovering above the earth.

Source: SpaceX/Pexels

These stations will cater to both private companies and space agencies, fostering innovation and collaboration.


Orbital Reef Details

Orbital Reef, led by Blue Origin and Sierra Space, will orbit 310 miles above Earth. Described as a “mixed-use business park,” it will enable companies to establish their own presence in space.

A satellite hovering over a coastline above Earth.

Source: SpaceX/Unsplash

Supported by Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering Solutions, and Arizona State University, it represents a new frontier in space commercialization.


Technological Contributions

Blue Origin will build and launch Orbital Reef’s modules using its New Glenn rocket. Sierra Space will create additional modules and utilize its Dream Chaser spaceplane for crew transport.

NASA satellite orbiting planet Earth

Source: NASA

Boeing will supply its Starliner spacecraft, ensuring a seamless integration of cutting-edge technologies.


A New Era of Space Exploration

As the ISS approaches the end of its mission, the transition to private space stations signifies a new era in space exploration.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company's Dragon spacecraft is launched on NASA's SpaceX Crew-8 mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts

Source: Aubrey Gemignani/NASA via Getty Images

NASA’s collaboration with SpaceX for a safe deorbit is a crucial step in this journey, ensuring continued advancements and international cooperation in low Earth orbit.