The ISS ― first crewed in 2000 ― will be extended for use until 2030, or 15 years beyond its initial life expectancy. Then, in January 2031, it’ll be sent crashing into the ocean.
NASA said the ISS alone doesn’t have the propulsion capabilities needed to complete the de-orbit, and will require visiting spacecraft. The propulsion from those spacecraft ― potentially three Russian Progress spacecraft ― will be used to force the ISS out of orbit and aim it at the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area, around Point Nemo, the location in the ocean most distant from land.
The remoteness makes it a frequent target for decommissioned spacecraft, with NASA calling it a “spacecraft cemetery.” The charred remains of an estimated 250 to 300 decommissioned spacecraft rest beneath the waters there.
The private sector will then take over 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, NASA’s director of commercial space, said in a news release.
NASA also plans a return to human visits to the moon, with the goal of building a base there. The remaining years of the ISS as well as those lunar missions will be used to prepare for a human mission to Mars.