When Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin announced earlier this week that Russia would stop supporting the International Space Station (ISS) after 2020 due to tension between his country and the United States, I thought of an old joke. You know the one:
"Doctor, will I be able to play the piano when the bandages come off?"
"I don't see why not."
"That's funny; I wasn't able to play it before."
And I thought of that joke because conventional wisdom had it that Russia would probably shut down the ISS well before 2020—and given recent events, it wouldn't have been unrealistic to expect the Russian Federal Space Agency to rush up the schedule a little bit. Now we've got a soft guarantee that Russia will continue to support the ISS for another six years, which gives it a much longer lifespan than anyone could have reasonably predicted when the first sections of the station were put into orbit in 1998.
Many commentators were ready to retire the station in 2004, and they had good reasons for doing so. Keeping it operational through 2020 would be an amazing feat. Skylab only got six years; Mir got 15; it looks as if the ISS, which was not designed for longevity, will get 22. And that's something worth celebrating.
And when the ISS is dismantled, that won't be the end of its story. Parts of the station are already slated for incorporation into future orbiting space station projects. If their durability improves on the ISS to the degree that the ISS improved on Mir, some ISS components are likely to remain operational for decades to come.