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Sink the space station? Not so fast

NASA via Reuters

The International Space Station is photographed from Atlantis during the last shuttle mission.

Now that the space shuttle fleet is out of service, the Russians are in charge when it comes to getting people to the International Space Station and back — so when a Russian space official talks about sinking the station as early as 2020, that may sound ominous to some ears.

In reality, it's not that big a deal: Vitaly Davydov, deputy director of Russia's Federal Space Agency, was simply stating current policy when he told TV interviewers that the station would be in use until 2020 or so, and that it would have to be taken out of orbit when it's obsolete.

The interview from "Good Morning Russia" ("Utro Rossii") caused a stir when a Russian-language transcript turned up on the space agency's website, but don't panic: If anything, the International Space Station will be in operation well after 2020. Russia, NASA and the other partners in the 16-nation venture are looking into extending the station's lifetime to 2028 — that is, if they can verify that its components will still be in working order that far into the future.

By 2028, still more space stations will be in orbit — almost certainly including the space bases currently being planned for launch as early as 2015 by private companies such as Bigelow Aerospace.

A close reading of the transcript shows that Davydov's comments, made during an interview focusing on last week's retirement of the shuttle fleet, are in line with the space station effort's current plans:

Q: Concerning the International Space Station, what's its fate? How long will it exist?

A: For now we've agreed with our partners that the station will be used until around 2020.

Q: And how long was it due to last?

A: Originally, 15 years.

Q: It's already been 13 years.

A: It's been 13 years since 1998, but the station's potential is much greater. I recall that when we flew Mir, we also thought it wouldn't be around all that long, but it was in operation for 15 years. [The first part of Russia's Mir space station was launched in 1986, and the complex was deorbited in 2001.]

Q: And then what happens to the International Space Station?

A: After the station completes its existence, we will be forced to sink it. It cannot be left in orbit, it's too complex, it's too heavy an object. It can leave behind lots of junk.

Q: Then will we build a new one?

A: There are a few alternatives. Of course, it's possible that [another] station wouldn't be created, but that we'd immediately try to turn our attention to the moon, to Mars. ...

Until a couple of years ago, the space station partners were working on the assumption that the 500-ton space station would have to be shut down and taken out of orbit in 2016. At the time, the partners were working out a plan that would put the station down in the Pacific just five or six years after its completion. But then the Obama White House revised NASA's space vision to extend the station's lifetime to at least 2020, providing an orbital testbed for future exploration.

NASA will have to rely on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from the space station for the next few years, while commercial ventures develop space taxis for NASA's future use. NASA also plans to move ahead with the development of an Orion exploration spaceship and a heavy-lift launch system for going beyond Earth orbit.

In the "Good Morning Russia" interview, Davydov speculated that a future space station could be built as a platform for trips to the moon or Mars. And he noted that Russia, like the United States, was working on a new type of spaceflight system that will have "reusable elements on a level considerably higher than today's."

"We calculate that after 2015 we will also begin to test a qualitatively new ship," Davydov said.

He was asked which country would be the first to come out with a new spaceship for exploration. "Let us compete," Davydov answered.

Update for 2 p.m. ET: Space.com's Leonard David laid out the plan for the International Space Station's eventual disposal in this article last year. Russia's Progress cargo ships would have to be modified in order to push the space station on a course to come down in the Pacific (or give the station an orbital boost in case more time is needed to execute the de-crewing and deorbiting plan). A contingency plan for deorbiting the space station has to be ready well before 2020, just in case a catastrophic event requires the abandonment and safe disposal of the football-field-sized complex.  

More about the future of spaceflight:

Txchnologist is running a thoughtful series of reports about the future of spaceflight this week, including an analysis from our own James Oberg, NBC News' space analyst. Check out the selection so far:

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