THE BLOG
05/14/2014 08:31 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2014

When Keeping the Space Station Open Suddenly Became a Cause Célèbre

Repeat after me... Z-vez-da. Remember that word, because you'll be hearing it a lot over the next few months, and probably years. Zvezda is a space module that weighs about 42,000 pounds. It was launched aboard a Russian Proton K rocket to low earth orbit (LEO) on July 12, 2000. About a year later, it became the cornerstone of the International Space Station (ISS), providing all of the station's life support systems, electrical power, and attitude control functions. The module also serves as the living quarters for the ISS crew.

In short, the Zvezda "service module" is critical to the operation of the station. It was Russia's goodwill contribution to this international space project. But the facility still technically belongs to the Russian space agency, Rosaviaskosmos, and is controlled by it. Unfortunately for the United States, that goodwill has eroded considerably during the past few months as a result of escalating tensions between Russia and the West over the political situation in Ukraine, particularly following the former's annexation of Crimea and threats of further incursions into eastern Ukraine.

It's unfortunate because absent a friendly and cooperative working relationship with the Russians on ISS, the Obama administration faces the hugely embarrassing dilemma of what to do if Mr. Putin wakes up one morning and simply decides to shut the station down. Okay okay, it wouldn't happen quite that way. There would be plenty of lead time to allow crew members to pack their belongings and exit in an orderly fashion. You would need months of advance planning to responsibly shut down systems and thoroughly figure out the consequences of leaving such a massive collection of hardware orbiting just 230 miles above our planet.

Do you make preparations for some sort of controlled gradual de-orbit of the station as a whole? All 1 million pounds of it? Do you disassemble the station and de-orbit it in pieces? Or do you simply let the $100 billion-plus structure sit up there in orbit, gradually losing altitude over many years, slowly burning up on its own as it re-enters the atmosphere? (Hopefully over one of the bigger oceans.)

Given that they hold the power (literally) with regard to the station, the Russians could be real jerks and decide to pull the plug without much warning. Fortunately, they've opted against this. Instead, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin informed the US yesterday that his country plans to end its role in ISS in 2020. In other words, Zvezda will be unplugged and boarded up, and -- by logical extension -- so will the entire space station.

Problem. The U.S. has been planning to keep the place going until at least 2024.

No problem. NASA has something called the "Interim Control Module" (ICM), which the US Naval Research Lab (NRL) built many years ago as a temporary backup for Zvezda. It could launch the ICM and mate it with ISS, thereby extending the station's life through perhaps 2023.

Problem. The ICM was originally to be launched by one of the Space Shuttles. The Shuttle program ended in 2011, and we currently do not have a rocket capable of launching the ICM or another replacement for Zvezda.

I think I may have found a mission for NASA's SLS (Space Launch System). You know, that mammoth rocket the agency aims to have ready by 2017-2018, but which thus far has no viable mission. Well, unless you buy into the whole roping the asteroid thing.

Still, it all seems like an awful lot of trouble and expense for keeping ISS open only a few additional years -- especially since up until 3-4 years ago the Obama administration had planned to retire ISS in 2016, and up until January of this year retirement was set for 2020. Reason might dictate, "What the heck, let's just go back to what we had in mind a few months ago." Two thousand twenty sounds like a nice round number, right?

Don't count on it. The Russians have dropped the gauntlet. Race is on. Suddenly, space has gotten interesting again.

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