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Given that the ISS will eventually come to the end of its mission (currently extended to 2020 (source)), would it be possible to re-purpose it for non-human space flight?

To clarify: does the equipment in orbit already provide enough utility to conduct useful science missions that would justify the operational costs and the costs of retrofitting the station?

It seems to me that risk and cost would be greatly reduced without a human crew, and we would be remiss to let all of that infrastructure de-orbit. But I don't know what kind off science experiments could be performed on the station remotely and if the benefits outweigh the costs.

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    $\begingroup$ You mean something along the lines of a Robonaut doing all the work? $\endgroup$ – TildalWave Aug 14 '14 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ The only justification I can think of would be the AMS-02 experiment, which cost over $2 billion, and does not require crew interaction. But the overhead cost of ISS ops is enormous with or without crew. Also, ISS history shows that without crew presence, failures would render the station useless. Ever more so with everything reaching or past end of life. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Dec 20 '14 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ @MyOtherHead: There's always an option of replacing ailing modules whole. Not just airlocks or instruments, but say, deorbiting the whole battered Zvezda and putting an entirely new module in its place. Even lifting the dumb truss segments to which solar panels are attached in orbit must have cost a fortune, and they are unlikely to fail for several centuries. If we could reuse 30% of ISS in a new construction it would still save a lot. $\endgroup$ – SF. Jan 11 '16 at 15:51
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    $\begingroup$ @SF: I too would like to see the ISS left aloft, if only for the heritage value to future generations, if that were possible, but after thinking about it, I realise it's not that simple. Incremental replacement still locks you into the particular architecture that was prevalent when the ISS was being designed and developed. AFICT, there have been many advances in the mating and sealing and other technologies by which the various modules are assembled and integrated. The ISS partners have learned a lot about what works and what doesn't, and those lessons will be incorporated into the next xSS. $\endgroup$ – My Other Head Jan 11 '16 at 16:12
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    $\begingroup$ @MyOtherHead: That still doesn't prevent replacing 70% of ISS, even if it meant need to dump all the habitat/science modules. I still believe no better trusses have been invented since. :) $\endgroup$ – SF. Jan 11 '16 at 16:16
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As time goes by, the technological backbone of any system becomes dated and outmoded. For example, several of the space shuttle systems were still using items designed in the Apollo days. These can be refit to use newer technology (i.e. using laptops to supplement shuttle computers, new glass cockpit technology, etc.), but there always comes a point where it's cheaper to start over. That point depends on how fast the technology changes. Who knows what technology will be available by 2020.

Many of the ISS systems are already outmoded, sometime by the very research being done on the ISS. Things like full environment recycling (air, water, etc). are critical to a long duration stay in space. Sounds like some of these systems, currently in use, are barely functional and need daily maintenance. This leads to re-thinking and re-engineering.

As far as robotic research, there is much that can be done by robots, but we're a long way from being able to do everything. And some things can't be done, such as studying human reaction to space, which is one of the key goals of the ISS.

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  • $\begingroup$ The technology used on ISS may be outdated, but the raw materials (aluminium, titanium, plastics, etc.) do not have expiration dates. You have 419 tons already in LEO. Although costly to disassemble and re-assemble (using robotics and 3D printing), this may be the cheaper long-term solution (that relaunching an equivalent amount of mass/new technology). With the added scientific purpose of practicing disassembling and re-assembling things in space (something that we eventually will have to do on Mars and the moon). $\endgroup$ – bonna Mar 21 at 14:22

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