The Soviets/Russian had a lot of station experience (Salyut, Almaz, Mir, and then ISS) that was used to build better and better stations.

The US did Skylab and Shuttle/Spacelab/SpaceHab, and learned some stuff, clearly.

What are the major takeaways from the ISS, that would be useful on the 'next' space station?

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    $\begingroup$ We can put a man on the moon, but we can't make a shower work in zero-g. $\endgroup$ Nov 3 '14 at 0:16

A couple from personal experience:

  • If the station has several identical or nearly-identical components externally, label them with labels big enough to be seen from windows. The US segment of the space station contains eight massive solar arrays. When looking at imagery of them, it is often quite difficult to discern exactly which piece of hardware I'm looking at, especially when the image does not contain any other parts of the station for context.

  • Cables and hoses are a pain. They don't behave nicely in microgravity, so any reconfiguration of external cables is pretty much required to be EVA. Cables are also quite vulnerable to debris impacts, and while they may seem like small targets, the sheer number of exposed cables can mean a not-insignificant risk.


Possible lessons:

  • Resupply is hard.
    • It takes a lot of time to load/unload cargo.
    • Automated docking is better than manual berthing.
    • Big doors are good for moving big cargo.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think those were quite clear before they started. Maybe with regard to the cargo, it could be mentioned that organizing and tracking cargo takes a long time. $\endgroup$ Nov 3 '14 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Rikki-Tikki-Tavi they already learned it the hard way when they lost a centrifuge in mir for 2 months :p They switched to bar code on the ISS then RFID. $\endgroup$
    – Antzi
    Oct 14 '16 at 9:15
  • EVA's have turned out to be an impractical way to work in space. Service robots are taking over even on the crewed ISS.

  • Many of the different health problems with microgravity have been discovered in much greater detail. It could be a profound takeaway if it means that the next space station will have to be designed with rotating so called artificial gravity.

( - I've heard that microgravity experiments (for medicine, materials sciences) have been a disappointment so far and that sounding rockets and orbiting automates would be preferable over a manned laboratory/factory in space, it would be interesting to learn more about this.)

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    $\begingroup$ I think I strongly disagree with your points. While EVA's may be hard, robots are no where as capable as humans. By many orders of magnitude, excepts in specific contrived very specific cases. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Nov 3 '14 at 12:37
  • $\begingroup$ @geoffc But NASA does develop robots with the capability to replace human EVA's. Remember the recent incident with liquids leaking inside the helmet a spacesuit. And the frequently unsuccessful space walks, even when trying to replace ISS parts made to be easily replaced during EVA, and with all of the astronaut training. A field geologist on Mars or the Moon is the best potential use of humans in space I know of today. Where they can have their feet on the ground and act like a grown up human, rather than as a floating fetus. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Nov 3 '14 at 12:57
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    $\begingroup$ You overestimate the state of the art in robots immensely. Robonaut is functionally a toy. Great for demoing ideas but can do next to nothing useful or flexible. I quibbled in my answer, since automating in a car factory is a GREAT use of robots. But they are generally limited to one or two very specific tasks. General porpoise robots are functionally non-existent at this moment in time, and in the near future. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Nov 3 '14 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ @geoffc Well, those who run the ISS seem rather more keen on toying with robots than with humans during EVA's. They are probably much cheaper than a spacesuit too. A takeaway under way seems to be to take away humans from EVA's. I think that the von Braunian and space shuttle attitude to humans working in empty space was much more optimistic than it is today. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Nov 4 '14 at 6:00
  • $\begingroup$ Robonaut failed completely and was returned to Earth. $\endgroup$ Jun 18 '20 at 22:30

Long term international cooperation is hard

And it might not come with only advantages, such as share the assembly and operational costs, share science, technology, infrastructure, services, increase IP portfolio and so on.

Some disadvantages are apparent since the Crimea crisis and US/EU sanctions against Russia, when momentarily, even the immediate future of the station wasn't clear and politics and hiccups in diplomacy nearly got the better of it. Additional multilateral reassurances were needed to continue with operations as previously agreed on, and US didn't have to recall all of its personnel from Star City in Russia, Baikonur in Kazakhstan,...

US side isn't exactly guilt-free when it comes to operational complications either. Remember the Government shutdown of 2013 when most of NASA's operations were cut to bare minimum and 97% of its employees on unpaid leave due to US Congress failing to reach an agreement on the FY2014 budget in time? Sure, we all read that ISS operations won't be affected, and to a large degree they probably weren't. But a lot of background work related to ISS activities, including international cooperation, also went on a forced hiatus, for lack of a better word.

So politics often can get in the way of research, and in an international theater, even more frequently so. But there's other points. One is definitely legal, better said - no shared liability; every nation party to the joint international project is equally and individually liable for any and all damages to property or land of other nations. At least that's according to the Outer Space Treaty and the later signed and ratified Space Liability Convention. This additionally complicates such deals between nations, sometimes, it might render them unworkable - but we don't read all that much about projects that failed before they were even established in the press, so this is hard to quantify.

Another point is of difficulties involved with bailouts once the international contracts are signed. Politics change, even their leaders and the whole bandwagon. But you might be stuck with a contract that you later don't like. Our ideas about space exploration change, our needs for their science products change, or we simply want to do the same more efficiently, reshuffle things around a bit. International contracts that hold a large part of your budget hostage might prevent all that, or delay its progress - again, possibly rendering it as a fruitless endeavor.

And finally, security problems. Let's not even mention interdependency and possible obstructions in case one of the nation parties can't or won't fulfill contract obligations. That's another issue altogether, but there are more pressing security concerns such as access control to proprietary or classified technology, and so on in an internationally shared location.

I'm not saying that all of these problems can't be worked with, or some bypassed altogether. There's absolutely also perks to international projects like ISS is, but long term international cooperation is hard. ISS taught us valuable lessons in this regard, still does, and will continue to do so while its fate isn't exactly set in stone and each member state continues to present different, sometimes incompatible ideas of its future.


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