The Space Station That Almost Wasn’tNASA's Close Call and the Future of Orbit

ISS Commercial Space Station

On the twenty-third of June 1993, in a sweltering Washington D.C., NASA administrator Daniel Goldin watched the House vote unfold with mounting apprehension. The International Space Station (ISS) – a project already 11 billion dollars and countless hours deep – was on the brink of cancellation.

Politically, the ISS was adrift. A Reagan-era initiative, expanded by George W. Bush, it survived the transition to the Clinton administration only due to Goldin’s pitch: a post-Soviet collaboration to revitalise the Russian space program and reduce the risk of its scientists turning to less desirable clients. Yet, NASA faced bipartisan scrutiny, seen as bloated and inefficient. Indiana Representative Tim Roemer sought drastic change and sought to kill the station altogether.

Goldin, a fierce advocate for the ISS, envisioned it as a permanent laboratory for research impossible within the confines of short shuttle missions. From material science to the effects of microgravity on the human body, the station held transformative potential. In the lead-up to the vote, he’d made over 100 calls to sway lawmakers.

As the vote dragged on, initial confidence faded. The 110 freshman members of Congress proved unpredictable allies. When the tally stalled at 215-215, all eyes turned to Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon. Goldin’s aide urged him to intervene; Goldin himself could only manage a desperate plea – the future of space exploration rested on the Congressman’s decision. A cryptic smile and a non-committal response from Lewis were all he received.

Lewis’ single vote saved the ISS, 216-215. Five years later, Russia launched the first module, and the station has been continuously occupied since November 2000.

The Ageing ISS and the Birth of Commercial Stations

Designed for a 20-year lifespan, the ISS has exceeded expectations but is nearing the end of its service. Currently, NASA plans a controlled de-orbiting around 2030, a complex operation ensuring debris falls safely into the Pacific Ocean.

The ISS’s legacy will endure. While it never became the interplanetary stepping stone that some had envisioned, it enabled vital biomedical and materials research and advanced our understanding of space’s effects on human physiology. To build upon this, NASA has embraced public-private partnerships, with companies poised to launch new commercial space stations catering to research, manufacturing, and even tourism.

If successful, this era will see private rockets transporting people and experiments to privately operated destinations. Crucially, it would validate a model where NASA builds foundational infrastructure then hands it to the private sector, enabling the agency to focus on pushing deeper into space. Plans are already underway for a similar model around the Moon, with a lunar orbiting station called Gateway, and ultimately, perhaps on Mars.

From Von Braun to Commercialisation: The Evolving Vision

Space stations have long been seen as a linchpin for venturing beyond Earth. In 1952, Wernher von Braun called them inevitable and key to sustainable exploration, providing logistical and resupply support for expeditions. The urgency of the Space Race led to this step being bypassed for the Moon landing, creating a successful yet unsustainable Apollo model.

Skylab, launched in 1973, was America’s first true space station. A converted Saturn V stage, it hosted three crews for experiments. As historian David Hitt explains, “Skylab made space itself the destination, not just a waypoint.” Its research laid the groundwork for understanding long-duration spaceflight, vital for future Mars endeavours.

While no station has yet served as von Braun imagined, incremental progress has occurred. The USSR’s modular Mir followed Skylab, then the multi-national ISS. Now, China’s Tiangong exists alongside the ISS. NASA’s Gateway station will orbit the Moon, potentially fulfilling a more limited variation of von Braun’s concept.

The Essential Science: Understanding the Human Body in Space

Despite stations not becoming hubs, they’ve proven invaluable in understanding space’s impact on the human body. Research on issues ranging from orthostatic intolerance to “spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome” is impossible without long-duration missions.

NASA’s Human Research Program chief scientist, Steven Platts, highlights the progress. While many concerns for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) are now mitigated, lunar and Mars missions reveal new challenges. Solving these is paramount. Some, like the effects of Mars dust, can only be investigated beyond LEO. Others, such as the risk of long-term psychological issues, can be investigated closer to home.

The Future: Commercial Stations Filling the Void

With the ISS’s retirement, the continuity of this research is vital. NASA, having seeded the concept with companies like SpaceX, is now doing so for orbital stations. Most promising is Axiom Space, operating out of a sprawling facility in Texas.

Axiom’s CTO, Michael Baine, explains their distinct model: building their station in segments, starting attached to the ISS itself. This offers compatibility with existing users, reduces risk, and leverages the ISS infrastructure before it’s decommissioned. Axiom’s long-term vision is the first true commercial space station, funded entirely by private investment.

NASA plans to be one of many customers on Axiom, validating a model advocated by figures like former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver: government-developed infrastructure transitioned to the private sector, freeing NASA for deep space exploration.

Whether Axiom, Blue Origin’s planned ‘Orbital Reef’ station, or another venture leads the way, the era of commercially owned and operated space stations is dawning. They promise to expand our capabilities within Earth’s orbit, and importantly, provide the knowledge and experience to take humanity’s next giant leap into the solar system.

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Bernard Mallia

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