The International Space Station as the International Space Ship? Why Not?

Could the ISS be modified to travel to Mars? Credit: NASA/Ian O'Neill
Could the ISS be modified to travel to Mars? Credit: NASA/Ian O'Neill

Now this is a cool idea: Strap rockets and a steering system to the International Space Station and send it to the Moon. Is this an insane plan? Up till yesterday I would have said yes, in fact before yesterday I hadn’t thought of the idea. Then I read the Washington Post online and find a science writer has been giving this a lot of thought. What’s more it kinda makes sense! So why isn’t this an option in NASA’s mind? And what’s the point anyway?

Somewhere out there in the vast nothingness of space,
Somewhere far away in space and time,
Staring upward at the gleaming stars in the obsidian sky,
We’re marooned on a small island, in an endless sea
Confined to a tiny spit of sand, unable to escape,
But tonight, on this small planet, on earth
We’re going to rock civilization…

  – Lyrics from “Prelude/Slam”, Pendulum

NASA is in trouble. Amidst budget cuts, Constellation Project overspending, premature retirement of the Shuttle (in my opinion), job cuts and increased competition from international agencies, is it little wonder NASA Administrator Michael Griffin is feeling a little exhausted. Gone are the glory days of a politically motivated NASA where anything seemed possible, and welcome to the “budget spaceflight” era where huge amounts of cash is being redirected elsewhere (and attempts to stimulate commercial spaceflight are becoming commonplace). In fact, when the Shuttle is put out of service in 2010, many suspect the brand new Constellation Program will not be complete in time for the scheduled 2015 launch. Much to the frustration of Griffin, where his repeated attempts to acquire another $2 billion to keep the project on track has fallen on deaf ears at Capitol Hill.

In the present “Crisis Era” (have you noticed that everything is in crisis? Food crisis, global warming crisis, water crisis, fuel crisis, Middle East crisis, credit crisis, mortgage crisis… the list is endless – many are real, many are media hype), we should add another to the list: The spaceflight crisis. Let’s face it everyone, manned missions beyond low Earth orbit may not become a reality for a lot longer than we’d hoped.

So how could we cut some corners? Perhaps extend the life of the Shuttle? (Expensive and possibly risky.) Depend on other nations? (Politically difficult.) Push for more commercial flights? (The market and technology isn’t there yet.) OK, so there’s a few barriers, but we are probably looking at a combination of solutions to plug the “5-year gap” from 2010-15(‘ish), but manned exploration of the Moon and Mars may have to be left to China or (possibly) ESA. However, there is a bizarre possibility that could use a pretty spaceworthy craft that has already been built, it has it’s “space wings”, already provided a home to astronauts for eight years… Could the International Space Station be retrofitted and renamed to “International Space (Mother) Ship”?

We know this could be done in theory (after all the ATV and Soyuz resupply vessels routinely push the ISS to higher orbits when needed – often increasing its altitude by a few miles in a few minutes), but it would be a strange move by NASA if it were to be considered. Many questions would hang over this possible retrofitting such as: How much fuel would be needed? Will the ISS structure hold during interplanetary missions to the Moon and possibly Mars? Will a new toilet be installed? Besides, the heads of NASA and even the US government would frown on this plan as it would look more like a recycling effort rather than advancing the human influence throughout the Solar System. Oh well, here’s to hoping…

It’s a shame the Russians didn’t consider this before scuttling the Mir space station – I bet they would have considered strapping some rockets to it…

For more on this, check out my article at the Universe Today.

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