After the last week’s ammonia leak that had turned out to be a false alarm due to a broken sensor, people started questioning the 17-year-old International Space Station (ISS) further sustainability.
Since its initial launch in 1998, the orbital station underwent a broad series of maintenance issues such as computer failures that led to lack of oxygen in some modular parts of the station and cosmic debris collisions.
In a recent press conference, Stephanie Schierholz, spokeswoman for the U.S. space agency, told reporters that ISS had had “more serious problems” than a broken ammonia sensor. Ms. Schierholz explained that five years ago ISS faced an actual ammonia pump failure. The pump had to be repaired and the crew had to perform several space walks to get it done.
She also said that the actions took Wednesday by the ISS’ crew, such as sealing the module where the leak was detected and getting everyone take refuge in the Russian module of the station, were for a worst-case scenario like the pump failure.
ISS has been now orbiting the Earth for 17 years; it had human crew on board for 5,188 days, and has orbited our planet 92,357 times since its launch. So, according to NASA, malfunctions are unavoidable.
Since 1998, ISS was gradually built up from several module-like parts that were beamed up from Earth.
“The first piece of the space station was put in orbit [in 1998], but the assembly actually took quite a bit of time, and wasn’t completed until 2011,”
Ms. Schierholz explained.
She also added that it took so long for the ISS to be completed because by adding the separate parts into it, the station used to change its configuration every time a new piece was brought up. The separate modular pieces were ferried from Earth by the space shuttle.
Additionally, the building of the ISS was delayed after the space shuttle Columbia’s failure in 2003 when the U.S. suspended the shuttle program for two and a half years. The suspension also led to a massive waste accumulation on ISS that further delayed operations.
But 2007 was the unluckiest year with a major computer failure that temporarily deprived the station of fresh air and shut down its thrusters. Thrusters are vital for the ISS since they allow it to dodge spatial debris and prevent deadly collisions. Also, in 2007, because a solar panel was damaged, one of the ISS astronauts had to perform a risky spacewalk on the space shuttle’s inspection arm.
Plus in 2010, the ammonia pump failure occurred.
Ms. Schierholz explained that all those failures were anticipated and the astronauts had been trained to cope with them. Also, space walks are constantly planned at the end of the life cycle of every part.
When asked for how long the aging orbital station would remain functional, NASA said that for as long as the federal government and its international partners would fund the project.
NASA also explained that ISS is certified for a particular lifetime. The current certification lasts until 2020, but the U.S. President plans to extend it to 2024, NASA added.
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