How Long Was the International Space Station in Orbit and When Will NASA Retire It?

NASA has released its plans for the next decade of operations for the International Space Station (ISS), including its retirement in 2031. Following the end of operations in 2030, the ISS will fall out of orbit and crash into the South Pacific in an area called Port Nemo, the report revealed.

NASA's report explains how the operations of the ISS will be transitioned to commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, set to begin operations in the late 2020s, that will be used by both government and private-sector customers.

Robyn Gatens, director of the International Space Station at NASA Headquarters, said in a press release: "The International Space Station is entering its third and most productive decade as a groundbreaking scientific platform in microgravity. "This third decade is one of results, building on our successful global partnership to verify exploration and human research technologies to support deep space exploration, continue to return medical and environmental benefits to humanity, and lay the groundwork for a commercial future in low-Earth orbit."

Until then, NASA explained that the ISS, orbiting Earth at an average altitude of around 254 miles, will continue to deliver enormous scientific, educational, and technological developments to benefit people on Earth and is enabling our ability to travel into deep space.

Technically the ISS has been in orbit since its first segment, the Zarya Control Module, was launched in November 1998 aboard a Russian Proton rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. This section provided fuel storage, battery power, and docking capabilities for the budding space station.

The United States contributed its first component for the ISS in December of the same year, sending the Unity Node 1 module to link up with Zarya, marking the beginning of the assembly of the ISS.

In 2000 the first crew, Expedition 1, including cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev and NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd, journeyed to the ISS and began the process of "powering up" the space station. The space station has been continuously occupied by crew since November 2000.

The ISS has continued to grow since then with 42 assembly flights delivering parts and facilities like Destiny, the U.S laboratory module, and the European Space Agency's Columbus Lab, which became part of the station in 2001 and 2008 respectively.

How Big Is The International Space Station?

The modern-day ISS is 356 feet end-to-end, according to NASA, meaning that it is visible from Earth at dawn and dusk. This is just a yard short of a football field including its end zones.

The station can accommodate eight spacecraft, all of which can dock at the ISS at one time. The pressurized area of the ISS has a length of 218 feet with a habitable zone of 13,696 cubic feet, not including these docked spacecraft.

The living area of the ISS is larger than the average six-bedroom house and is comprised of six sleeping quarters, two bathrooms, and crucially a gym that helps the crew avoid muscle atrophy and bone mass loss associated with living in microgravity.

The current crew size of the ISS is seven people who orbit the planet at a speed of five miles per second, so rapid that the ISS orbits the Earth 16 times per 24 hours. This means the crew of the station could potentially see 16 sunrises and sunsets per day if they stay glued to one of its viewing ports.

NASA said that taking into account U.S. commercial crew and cargo transportation systems, the ISS is currently busier than ever. As an example of this, the ISS National Laboratory is currently the home of hundreds of experiments operated by government agencies, academia, and commercial users.

Gatens said that this is expected to continue over the next decade. She said: "We look forward to maximizing these returns from the space station through 2030 while planning for transition to commercial space destinations that will follow."

In January 2031, NASA's report assumes that the deorbit of the ISS will bring it safely down to Point Nemo, 1,450 nautical miles from Easter Island and the area of the ocean most distant from land.

Interesting Engineering reported that the area is nicknamed a "space cemetery" due to the fact it is the point where thousands of NASA missions have been brought to rest since 1971. Its current largest piece of "space junk" is Russia's Mir space station which was brought to rest there in March 2001.

International Space Station
An image of the ISS as it orbits Earth. NASA has announced that the station will be retired in 2031. NASA