NASA Plans to Retire the ISS and Hurtle It Into the Ocean

Forget the moon crashing into Earth. NASA plans to send the International Space Station into the ocean in 2031. This week, NASA announced its plans for the space station, which will sign off after 30 years in low-Earth orbit (via Gizmodo). This news comes about a month after the Biden-Harris administration extended the station’s operations through 2030. (They were previously set to expire in 2024.) But NASA’s making it clear that this is—officially—the end for the ISS.

This news comes just after NASA sent a  detailed report on the station and its future to congress. In the 24-page document, the agency laid out the station’s goals and objectives for the next several years. It also stated plans for the International Space Station’s retirement. Notably, the report cites the private sector for its ability to take over low-Earth orbit (LEO) enterprises. It’ll do so with NASA’s help, of course. And save the agency a lot of money—an estimated $1.3 billion in 2031 and up to $1.8 billion by 2033. NASA can then redirect those funds to other programs. 

An Image of the International Space Station (ISS) from NASA

“The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, with NASA’s assistance. We look forward to sharing our lessons learned and operations experience with the private sector to help them develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective destinations in space,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA Headquarters, said in a press release. “The report we have delivered to Congress describes, in detail, our comprehensive plan for ensuring a smooth transition to commercial destinations after retirement of the International Space Station in 2030.”

The ISS has served the space community—and people on Earth at large—very well during its activity. But in early 2031, the ISS will re-enter Earth’s orbit to eternally rest with decommissioned spacecrafts, stations, and orbiters: South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area (SPOUA). The area just to the East of New Zealand even has the nickname the “ Spacecraft Cemetery.” It’s a perfect dwelling for future Earthly inhabitants to discover with their surely-superior deep sea technology.

Now, as Gizmodo points out, the ISS exists in partnership with a handful 0f other international space agencies. And nowhere in the notice does it mention that other agencies are on board with keeping the ISS in low-Earth orbit until 2030—most notably the Russian agency, Roscosmos. That’s all to say that this all potentially could end sooner. Until then, we hope the crews aboard continue to regale us with stories of space tacos and games.

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