By Nick Nielsen – Sir Francis Drake—to the Spanish, a notorious privateer, while, to the English, a national hero— returned from his circumnavigation of 1577-1580 on his flagship Golden Hind, loaded with treasure taken from Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, taken prize by Drake in the Pacific. Due to its fame, the Golden Hind was maintained as a museum ship until the mid-seventeenth century, by which time it had rotted through and had to be broken up. In the early modern period there existed no technology for the preservation of historical artifacts, so although it was recognized in its own time as historically significant, it has nevertheless been lost to us. A reconstruction of the Golden Hind was built and is currently on display, but what would we not give for the original?
In some cases of historically important vessels, we have the original. One of the most impressive museums in Europe is that which houses the Swedish warship Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage on 10 August 1628 and was raised to the surface again on 24 April 1961, having been largely preserved by the cold waters of Stockholm harbor, and which has benefitted from decades of careful conservation work. The ship towers over visitors, and its looming bulk is a reminder to all who see it of palpable history, nearer to us than we are wont to recognize.
The now-lost Golden Hind, and the still preserved Vasa, each represent, in their own way, the aspirations of their time, and they represent a technological triumph in seafaring—as well as the disasters that also attend the development of any technology. There are many lessons to be learned from these artifacts, and the lessons are the more immediate the more concretely the memory of these vessels is embodied. That we can reach out and touch the Vasa matters to us as human beings, and it will matter to future generations.
We have an opportunity in our own time to preserve a spacecraft perhaps as emblematic of our time as the Golden Hind and the Vasa were emblematic of early modern times—the International Space Station. It would be difficult to argue that there is any value in deorbiting the ISS other than cost savings. The one argument that could be made is that the ISS is a large object in LEO that will break apart and further litter LEO with fragments if it is not deorbited rapidly and effectively, and it would be a danger to life and property on Earth’s surface in an uncontrolled deorbit. A controlled deorbiting of the ISS in one fell swoop would prevent these dangers.
It seems unlikely that it is impossible to safely boost the ISS to a graveyard orbit; impossibility is a high bar to pass. In this context, claims that preserving the ISS is not possible probably should be understood to mean that an effort to preserve the ISS would be expensive, difficult, dangerous, and likely to fail. Such claims must be taken seriously. It is not my purpose to minimize these dangers, and I will desist from making any suggestions as to how the obvious problems with the preservation of the ISS might be addressed, as I am not an engineer, and, if I present a flawed proposal for its preservation, this could be counted as weakening the case for the preservation of the ISS. In the real world, we have to make compromises, and we cannot afford to preserve everything that we would ideally prefer to preserve.
All of these things might be true, and yet none address another question that is not being asked: what is the right thing to do with the ISS after it is decommissioned as an active mission? All other things being equal, I would want to err on the side of preserving historical and scientific values that would be irreversibly annihilated and permanently unrecoverable with the deorbiting of the ISS. I submit that the right thing to do is to preserve the ISS if it is cost effective to do so. At minimum, an opportunity should be provided for a team (or several teams) to devise a technically feasible means to preserve the ISS at a cost of up to a billion dollars, preferably achieving preservation at a lower cost than deorbiting. When a billion dollars is being staked on the destruction of material cultural heritage, the least we can do is to stake the same billion dollars on the preservation of cultural heritage. Failing to even consider the option of preservation is unconscionable. To claim of preserving the ISS that, “This is not what it was designed for,” misses the point. The Golden Hind was not designed to be a museum ship for several decades; the Vasa was not designed to lie on the bottom for hundreds of years and then be displayed in a museum.
The ISS possess unique historical, scientific, and spiritual value. Historically, as the longest continuously inhabited artificial structure in space, and one of the largest and most complex construction projects ever undertaken, it has no peer as a human artifact. Many space records to date have been set in the operations of the ISS. Scientifically, the ISS has made significant contributions to human knowledge, and the preservation of the ISS would memorialize these contributions in a concrete way. However, these contributions to scientific knowledge can continue for as long as the ISS is in existence. After it is no longer regularly inhabited, it would be possible for astronauts to periodically visit the structure to assess the ongoing spaceworthiness of the structure as well as to determine the long-term consequences of a human-inhabited artificial structure. Such knowledge may play a significant role in future human activities in space. Spiritually, the ISS represents aspirations to space exploration, scientific research, and international cooperation that motivated its construction and its operation over more than two decades.
These values will not be forgotten with the deorbiting of the ISS, and, insofar as they are documented, they will not be entirely lost. However, the preservation of these values for future generations will be much more vivid if there is a tangible artifact that human beings can visit and even continue to study. It is to be expected that, as the human presence in space grows in extent and complexity that conflicts among values will eventually become inevitable, and hard choices will have to be made, but in the case of the preservation of the ISS, the conflicts among values are minimal, and overwhelmingly favor its conservation as material cultural heritage. The Skylab and Mir space stations are already lost to us, along with all their historical and scientific value; we still have the opportunity to preserve the ISS. The ISS does not need to be crewed or even to be maintained for it to continue to yield scientific knowledge. And while human travel to graveyard orbits is difficult at present, it will not necessarily always continue to be so. In a hundred years or more, such orbits may be routinely accessible, and, with this capacity, a preserved ISS would be routinely accessible.
Let the ISS become the first “museum ship” in space. Our descendants will be grateful to us if we preserve this icon of the early Space Age intact for their study and their edification. Once it is gone, it is gone forever, but, if preserved now, it might be preserved into the indefinite future for humanity.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of For All Moonkind’s Institute on Space Law and Ethics.