KEY POINTS

  • The International Space Station is a modular space station located about 254 miles above the earth’s surface
  • ISS is a collaborative project between five participating space agencies, including NASA
  • The station has been continuously occupied since November 2000

The International Space Station, or ISS, has recently come under some criticism for excessive and frivolous spending, while astronauts in the low-orbit facility deal with a string of annoyances.

For example, a toilet in the Russian segment of ISS recently broke down – but has apparently since been repaired. The oxygen supply system in the Russian-controlled area of the station also broke down – as did an oven used to warm up meals.

“All of the station’s systems are operating normally, there is no danger to the crew’s safety and the ISS journey,” a spokesperson for Russian space agency Roscosmos told TASS news agency.

ISS is a modular space station located about 254 miles above the earth’s surface – it orbits the planet once every 90 minutes, meaning in a 24- hour-day, the station orbits the earth about 16 times. ISS is a collaborative project between five participating space agencies, including NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA of Japan, ESA of Europe and CSA of Canada.

Launched in 1998, ISS has been continuously occupied since November 2000.

The problem of the faulty toilet in the Russian module was ironic since NASA recently introduced a new $23 million toilet, the Universal Waste Management System, or UWMS.

Architectural Digest reported that the toilet is made of titanium -- a very dense and strong metal -- and was manufactured by Collins Aerospace, a subsidiary of Raytheon Technologies (RTX).

“Less time spent on plumbing means more time for the crew to spend on science and other high-priority exploration focused tasks,” NASA said in a statement defending the costly new commode.

But the overall cost of ISS – at least $150 billion by some estimates, making it the “single most expensive object ever built” – is only one point of criticism of the project.  Some critics contend that money and time expended on the space station would be better used for alternate projects including robotic spacecraft missions and space exploration.

However, ISS has its supporters as well.

Christian Zur, executive staff to the Procurement and Space Industry Council at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called ISS “a jewel in the crown of human achievement.”

“With an expected trillion-dollar space economy to come, the ISS can play a defining role in the formation of the industry,” Zur wrote in a blog in Scientific American.

He noted that ISS runs an array of basic and applied research programs with participation of companies like Boeing (BA), Anheuser-Busch (BUD) and Airbus.

“The ISS is effectively the premier space R&D lab,” he said.

ISS will also play a key role, he indicated, in NASA's “Lunar Gateway” program which will land astronauts near the Moon’s South Pole and eventually send humans to Mars.

“But we can't get there from here -- not without the ISS,” Zur stated. “The lion's share of onboard station research [on ISS] is aimed at solving long-term challenges for human survival in deep space. The ISS is the tethered ship from which astronauts will hone spacefaring skills to venture beyond the proverbial horizon.”

Joshua Colwell is a planetary scientist and professor of physics at the University of Central Florida, as well as assistant director of the Florida Space Institute. He has also conducted research for ISS.

“The cost of the International Space Station was primarily the up-front cost of launches and assembly,” he told International Business Times . “Now it is a real bargain to operate compared to setting it up, so in order to get our money’s worth -- to get a return on that large investment -- we should continue exploiting this unique resource for as long as the station can be safely operated.”

Colwell noted that critics of ISS frequently fail to recognize that operational costs for space missions pale in comparison to the costs of getting them off the ground.

“But the funding frequently dries up once it’s built,” he added. “I’m happy that we have extended the commitment to keep the ISS operational so we can continue to perform experiments in physical and life sciences that can only be performed in a long-duration microgravity facility such as the ISS.”

Colwell further noted that ISS research is “enabling us to prepare for the next steps in human and robotic space exploration of our solar system, as well as many Earth-focused experiments related to material sciences."

Abishur Prakash, a geopolitical futurist based in Toronto, told IBT, that ISS has been the main vehicle through which nations have cooperated in space.

“Except, now, nations are operating independently, not jointly,” he said. “Both China and India are developing their own space stations, while Russia is eyeing a base on the Moon. The role the ISS plays is becoming uncertain. Geopolitical rivalry is pushing nations to operate differently in space.”

All of this means that the role of the ISS will change, Prakash cautioned.

“The U.S. may sell it to commercial interests or use it for tourism,” he suggested. “After all, NASA’s budget is $22.6 billion a year but running the ISS costs up to $4 billion a year. Running the ISS is a large chunk of NASA’s budget. Soon, there may be multiple space stations, originating from different nations. And, these stations will act as launch pads for more competition between nations in space.”