Most expensive structures can be seen from miles around, their prominence on the skyline is often one of the reasons for their very existence. But the most expensive structure ever built can be seen by nearly the entire planet. The International Space Station circles the earth every 90 minutes or so and has been continuously occupied since November 2000. The research facility is 356 feet long, longer than the biggest passenger aircraft, has a 55-foot robotic arm, eight miles of wires, and docking spots for up to eight spaceships. The exact cost of the structure is unclear but it is estimated to cost as much as $190 billion to construct. What is clear is that the building in the sky is reaching the end of its useful life. With an operational price tag of around $4 billion per year, NASA is now looking at its options for decommissioning its crown jewel.
NASA had planned on scraping the ISS in 2024 but legislators have looked at extending the building’s life and transitioning it to a commercial facility to “establish a low-Earth orbit commercialization program to encourage the fullest commercial use and development of space by private entities in the United States.” Even if the space station is pushed into its fiery fate of burning up upon reentry, its legacy, and some of its component pieces, will remain. A company called Axiom has already added three of its living modules to the space station and plans to detach them from the moribund satellite and become the world’s first commercial free-flying space station.
Axium has plans to eventually create a commercial research facility but for now, they seem fine with their use as a “room with a view.” The website even says that the pods’ “egg-like structure symbolizes nest-like comfort complete with unobstructed views of our home planet—the first such place for humans to truly contemplate our place in the Cosmos.”
Space has always been a place of great fascination for humans but, the idea of space travel might run contrary to the growing environmental movement back here on earth. The average rocket produces around 300 tons of carbon. Even if you divide that by four passengers, that is as much carbon as the average American produces in around four years and as much as the average Indian produces in 35. What makes it worse is that much of the pollution is added directly to the upper atmosphere, precisely where it does the most damage to our climate. If a tax on carbon emissions ever comes to pass, space travel would likely become even further out of reach for the average citizen.
Space tourism is, for now, a dream of billionaires. But in our lifetimes, it could be the reality for millionaires. While it’s unlikely, given today’s technology, to be something that most of the population would be able to participate in, it could also help fund important zero-gravity research. What was once the purview of states’ space agencies is now landing firmly in the hands of private companies. We will all bear witness, all we have to do is look up into the night’s sky.