Elon Musk’s SpaceX to Destroy the International Space Station

Elon Musk, spacex, nasa, iss, space waste

NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are working on retiring the I.S.S.

  • Their plan includes a SpaceX vehicle towing the orbit station into our atmosphere, where it will be destroyed and then crash into the ocean.
  • The issue of space waste remains as humans keep marching forward in their explorations.

NASA has hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to destroy the International Space Station (I.S.S.), making people worry about space waste raining down on Earth.

We’ve been present in outer space since 1944, when we sent the MW 18014, a German A-4 test rocket, to perform the first sub-orbital flight. In 1961, we successfully sent a human to outer space. Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space, orbiting Earth in the Vostok 1 spacecraft.

Since then, the human presence in space has only grown. As of writing this article, there are 7,560 operational satellites in orbit. These maps from the Union of Concerned Scientists show you the countries that were involved in satellites in 1966 versus 2020:

Source: The Union of Concerned Scientists
Source: The Union of Concerned Scientists

Throughout this evolution, however, we’ve also managed to create a lot of space waste. According to the Space Debris User Portal, as of June 18th, 2024, there are 12,400 tonnes of space objects in Earth orbit.

Computer generated graphic of objects in Earth orbit, as of January 1, 2019. (Source: NASA)

This graphic is based on data from 2019. However, it paints a clear picture of how crowded Low Earth Orbit (LEO) really is. And there doesn’t seem to be an end to this in sight.

You Did Well, I.S.S.

The US, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada collaborated to create, deploy, and jointly maintain the I.S.S. until 2030. As the deadline is looming over us, NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are partnering to ensure that the orbit station is disposed of appropriately.

They will build a custom vehicle to tow the station through the atmosphere. Once there, it will destructively break up alongside Elon Musk’s SpaceX vehicle. The plan is for the International Space Station debris that doesn’t burn up on its way down to crash into the ocean and away from populated areas.

But you know what they say, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Bursting at the Bolts

On June 27th, nine astronauts living on the I.S.S. were instructed to take shelter as a defunct Russian satellite mysteriously fell apart into hundreds of pieces. The Russian Earth observation satellite had been declared dead back in 2022. Scientists are unsure of what caused it to break up.

Some theorize that Russia shot it down with a ground-based anti-satellite missile. After all, they do have a history of doing so. In 2021, Russia came under fire for striking one of its obsolete satellites with a missile, creating thousands of space waste pieces. However, experts believe that a problem with the satellite itself, like leftover fuel causing an explosion, is the most likely culprit.

It’s Raining… Metal Supports?

This generation of space waste wouldn’t be as bad if the items didn’t make their way back to us, ultimately crashing somewhere. While most debris is small enough to burn up on its way down, the bigger chunks are dangerous.

Last March, a metal support that was used to mount batteries on a cargo pallet and discarded from the I.S.S. smashed into a Florida home. The metal log was thrown out of the orbital station three years ago. This cylindrical chunk of metal has been orbiting Earth and then nosedived into the poor man’s house, almost killing his son. The family is now suing NASA for $80,000 for the stress that NASA’s trash caused.

We’ve polluted our obit almost as much as we’ve polluted our planet. There is debris up there from 1966. And eventually, they all make their way back to Earth if the atmosphere doesn’t set them on fire.

Even though NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are planning on destroying the I.S.S., they will be replacing it with other orbit stations. The European Space Agency, Airbnb, and Voyager Space have been in cahoots long before this deal with SpaceX. Also, by its own admittance, NASA will be moving to “commercially owned space destinations closer to home.”

You’d think they act like good tenants and clean before moving out. While it’s not as easy as taking a vacuum to your carpet, there don’t seem to be active efforts to collect the debris and discard it in a way that doesn’t make Swiss cheese out of people’s homes.

Final Thoughts

Once NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX finalize their vehicle and initiate the I.S.S. retirement plan, it will be the end of an era of cross-nation collaboration in space. However, here’s to hoping they work together to clean up outdated and defunct space waste.

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