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As Space Station Nears Completion, It Faces End of Mission

The international space station, as seen from the space shuttle Discovery. The station is scheduled to be completed next year, then returned to Earth in 2016.
The international space station, as seen from the space shuttle Discovery. The station is scheduled to be completed next year, then returned to Earth in 2016. (Courtesy Of Nasa)
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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 2009

A number of times in recent weeks a bright, unblinking light has appeared in the night sky of the nation's capital: a spaceship. Longer than a football field, weighing 654,000 pounds, the spaceship moved swiftly across the heavens and vanished.

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Fortunately, it was one of ours.

The international space station is by far the largest spacecraft ever built by earthlings. Circling the Earth every 90 minutes, it often passes over North America and is visible from the ground when night has fallen but the station, up high, is still bathed in sunlight.

After more than a decade of construction, it is nearing completion and finally has a full crew of six astronauts. The last components should be installed by the end of next year.

And then?

"In the first quarter of 2016, we'll prep and de-orbit the spacecraft," says NASA's space station program manager, Michael T. Suffredini.

That's a polite way of saying that NASA will make the space station fall back into the atmosphere, where it will turn into a fireball and then crash into the Pacific Ocean. It'll be a controlled reentry, to ensure that it doesn't take out a major city. But it'll be destroyed as surely as a Lego palace obliterated by the sweeping arm of a suddenly bored kid.

This, at least, is NASA's plan, pending a change in policy. There's no long-term funding on the books for international space station operations beyond 2015.

Suffredini raised some eyebrows when, at a public hearing last month, he declared flatly that the plan is to de-orbit the station in 2016. He addressed his comments to a panel chaired by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine that is charged by the Obama administration with reviewing the entire human spaceflight program. Everything is on the table -- missions, goals, rocket design. And right there in the mix is this big, fancy space laboratory circling the Earth from 220 miles up.

The cost of the station is both a liability and, paradoxically, a virtue. A figure commonly associated with the ISS is that it will ultimately cost the United States and its international partners about $100 billion. That may add to the political pressure to keep the space laboratory intact and in orbit rather than seeing it plunging back to Earth so soon after completion.

"If we've spent a hundred billion dollars, I don't think we want to shut it down in 2015," Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told Augustine's committee.

Suffredini agrees.


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