Recycling Space Hardware: Good Idea or Bad?

Would it be feasible to recycle this football-field-sized space station into a series of smaller stations? Image credit Wikipedia
Would it be feasible to recycle this football-field-sized space station into a series of smaller stations? Image credit Wikipedia

Russia sparked an interesting discussion when it announced plans to recycle its contributions to the International Space Station as a new station once the ISS has been decommissioned. It’s an intriguing idea, assuming that they can actually pull it off. Refurbishing those aging modules for reuse could save the money it takes to create new ones. On the flip side, can Russia actually refurbish those old modules in a meaningful way, or will it become like Mir in its last years? The last purely Russian space station became an old, deteriorated, unsafe contraption that was marred by events like a raging fire and a collision that caused some of the modules to decompress. Any meaningful reuse of aging hardware would pretty much require a way to make upgrades and replace worn-out components as necessary to make the space station viable without getting to the point where you might as well just scrap it and start over.

A large orbiting spaceport could be useful in this regard. When a spaceship comes in from Mars, it is likely to need a good cleaning, routine maintenance and restocking of supplies before it goes out again. Docking at the spaceport for the necessary work would be cheaper than having to land and launch again, even given the inevitable docking and service fees that hopefully won’t be too extortionist in the event of a monopoly.

That same spaceport could also act as a centralized point for providing maintenance for hardware in orbit. Depending on the situation, the spaceport could send out an orbital “tow truck” to bring somebody’s stranded spacecraft to a docking port or provide the orbital equivalent of roadside assistance for a modest-sized space station. The Russians could keep the ISS modules in orbit just about forever without being accused of producing a death trap just by calling on the repair and maintenance crews of this theoretical future spaceport on a regular basis.

Naturally, producing a spaceport with this kind of capacity would be fairly pricey and may well require a shift in the way that major space agencies and aerospace companies have been operating. I see the International Space Station as a sign of what can happen when several countries work together relatively smoothly although it wasn’t perfect. It may well take a similar, larger, and more harmonious joint effort to produce the kind of spaceport I imagine with a capacity that can handle hundreds of humans passing through at once, large crews and the level of activity you see at a typical large airport. The bean counters of each individual government will likely go pale just from adding up the cost and convince the higher-ups that the expense isn’t necessary. And we’d still be stuck just launching spacecraft into orbit every time we want to make repairs to a satellite or send a new crew to our space station who will be stuck doing most of the maintenance, which cuts into the time that could be spent on experiments.

Would it be worth the savings that recycling space hardware would bring? I think of it this way. A combination of slashing costs beyond any sense of reason, a fair amount of political correctness along with bureaucratic bungling, and slavish adherence to scheduling has caused NASA to lose two space shuttles and the occasional Mars probe. So it’s not a good thing to reuse hardware just to say we can. If we want to disassemble the International Space Station to form the cores of our own separate space stations, it will take careful planning. A friend of mine actually suggested to me that the American modules could form the central part of a station in Mars orbit, and it makes some kind of sense if you consider the fact that it could theoretically save whoever wants to put together a Mars orbital station a few launches. My reaction to this idea was that it’s still not going to be free. Those modules would basically have to go through an upgrading process to be useful in Martian orbit. Considering the fact that most of the American and some of the international hardware were shipped up by space shuttle, we may also need a spacecraft that can get them there – preferably one that’s headed to Mars anyway if we truly want to save costs. It’s definitely something to think about even if we don’t solve all the logistics of such an operation in time to actually make use of the American modules. With some careful planning and good execution, recycling hardware for new uses could have some benefits for people trying to run a space program on a budget.

What Does The International Space Station Look Like Now?

Sunita Williams gives us a tour that emphasizes a lot of the everyday parts of living on the space station along with the fact that it’s an international effort. If you can imagine this getting diced up into parts, you’ll have an idea of what Russia wants to do.

Space Stations on eBay

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