What concerns, besides orbit decay and continued cost of operation (and potentially, a critical failure) are the motivations behind decommissioning the ISS by 2020? I mean, I'm fairly sure it would be cheaper to develop a weak-thrust motor that would move the station to a higher orbit, instead of just dumping it and building a new one, and it's probably quite some time before it begins failing as badly as MIR would while still operating.

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    $\begingroup$ One of the answers mentioned this, but just to be clear, orbit decay has nothing to do with decommissioning. The ISS orbit is decaying constantly, but it is periodically re-boosted by visiting Progress and ATV vehicle, and can even modify its own orbit if necessary. The de-orbiting of Mir was intentional. $\endgroup$
    – Nickolai
    Mar 21, 2014 at 15:27

3 Answers 3


There are some seals, on some of the modules that have a limited lifespan. The lifespans are in the 20 year range, but they are very hard to replace.

Some of them are on the Russian end of the station, (Oldest part of course, in terms of launch, but since also was built even earlier than launch for Mir II usage) and these are the ones exposed to the fuel/oxidizer for station reboost. Thus they are exposed to Hydrazine and MMH which is horribly corrosive, and even seals safe with those things, have a limited lifespan. I imagine these seals are buried fairly deep inside the module, and not greatly accessible for replacement.

Conversely, the Russians have talked about taking their modules and going home, if the US decides to end the ISS 'early' from their perspective which argues against my point.

The US side is much harder to support without Zvezda/Zarya for orbital control. US side does much of the power, and heat radiation, but not much of the orbital maintenance.

  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean that the Russians would "go home" with their modules? $\endgroup$
    – AlanSE
    Jul 21, 2013 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ @AlanSE Basically if the US decided to end the ISS partnership and deorbit it, the Russians contemplate separating their modules, and keeping it as a standalone station. Not literally go home of course, but like kids who no longer get along, take your toys and go home. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Jul 21, 2013 at 23:29
  • $\begingroup$ But wouldn't it be easier and more cost effective to replace the old modules, instead of throwing away everything? Since the whole idea of the ISS is modularity... $\endgroup$
    – Tibi
    Dec 8, 2021 at 10:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Tibi The issue is, they are mostly linerally attached. I.e. MOSTLY in straight line. How would you replace a module, 'in the middle'? So Kibo/Columbus, sure, no big deal. But how about Node 1? $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Dec 8, 2021 at 14:29

The orbital decay is not the reason for abandoning ISS at all. The orbit is constantly being corrected by the cargo ships, plus several modules have their own thrusters for orbit correction.

ISS is 15 year old. Mir was in orbit for 15 year when it was deorbited. The ageing shows itself in many aspects on all the stations. ISS, Salyut-7, Mir, Skylab.

The last Mir expeditions tried to find and fix up small holes in the hull with an epoxide based glue. Not much luck. They found one, but could not find the others.

Salyut-7 station was left without a crew for several months. A power failure caused a loss of contact, so the ground control could not control its flight. And what's even worse, it had stopped the life support systems. The water froze. The pipelines were seriously damaged.

The failure to account for increased solar activity invalidated previous calculations and brought down Skylab from the parking orbit much earlier than anticipated.

That is, critical events are happening all the time. The plastics degrade, the metals corrode, micrometeorites cause damage from outside. And if left without attention a space station produced with the current level of technologies will quickly become a useless and dangerous piece of space garbage.

Another reason for deorbiting Mir was a need to spend resources on the newer ISS project. The Russians have had previous experience of using two stations at the same time. That was the brand new Mir and the old good Salyut-7. (They even flew in Soyuz there and back between the stations). Two stations are just too expensive to support together. So if the Russians or Americans or all together decide to spend money on something newer and better, the station will have to be abandoned.

  • $\begingroup$ There was some talk around Mir's end, and ISS's beginning to move some of the modules over, for the Russian segment. But it did not happen. The Russians have suggested taking their modules and going home if the US decides to end ISS. Conversely the US has suggested taking ISS Modules and reusing in other projects (like EML1). $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Jul 17, 2013 at 16:12
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    $\begingroup$ @geoffc: Funny. A space divorce. $\endgroup$
    – user54
    Jul 17, 2013 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ It's not that simple I suppose. The Zarya module formally belongs to NASA, for example. $\endgroup$
    – user54
    Jul 17, 2013 at 16:56
  • $\begingroup$ About Salyut 7, first of all it was a failure in the communications system that led to the loss of ground control. Separately, and completely unrelated, there was a failure in the power system after the failure in the comms system, which, of course, went undetected. That's when the station nearly died, but a crew was sent up to repair it and they did so successfully. They anticipated that there might be no power, and prepared for it to some degree, but it was not actually expected to be the case. They found the station a lot worse than expected, and they still fixed it. $\endgroup$
    – Nickolai
    Mar 21, 2014 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ Did the astronauts on Mir die? $\endgroup$ Jun 19, 2018 at 23:34

I will use an analogy. As your car gets older it wears out. It gets more and more expensive to maintain as parts fail. At some point it is cheaper to get rid of it and buy a new car. This point may depend on how safe you feel in the car.

An old ramshackle rustbucket may be drivable slowly, despite having holes in the floor, broken suspension, no windscreen etc. , but the ISS is a much higher risk. If parts fail, there is a high likelihood that astronauts will die.

The ISS is old, and the amount of maintenance is getting quite high-the schedule for each astronaut includes essential maintenance tasks.

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    $\begingroup$ "The ISS is old" - Well, parts of it are. What's ironic is that it has only just been completed! Some parts are brand new. $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2013 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, but like a classic car, you can replace all worm parts with new-it just gets very expensive. $\endgroup$
    – Rory Alsop
    Jul 17, 2013 at 12:20
  • $\begingroup$ So which parts in particular are decaying especially badly? $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Jul 17, 2013 at 12:28
  • $\begingroup$ @SF. None of them, and that's the point, they are ditching it before things are badly decayed, if they waited until then then many astronaut lives would be in danger. $\endgroup$
    – user106
    Jul 17, 2013 at 12:40
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    $\begingroup$ Well then, which parts WOULD fail first, if they were to work too long? Which is the achilless' heel of the station that forces such early decommissioning? $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Jul 17, 2013 at 12:46

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