American orbital launch pioneer SpaceX hopes to add another offering to its growing list of services: crashing space stations back to Earth.

The California rocket company, best known for its vertically-landing, reusable Falcon 9 boosters, has won a contract from the American space agency NASA to develop a new vehicle that can return the International Space Station (ISS) to Earth.

NASA on 26 June said it has selected SpaceX as the prime contractor for the US Deorbit Vehicle (USDV), which will be used to safely bring down the orbiting laboratory via controlled re-entry at the time of its retirement.

“Selecting a US Deorbit Vehicle for the International Space Station will help NASA and its international partners ensure a safe and responsible transition in low Earth orbit at the end of station operations,” says NASA associate administrator Ken Bowersox.

The agency notes the ISS will reach the end of its operational life in 2030, after more than 30 years of continuous flight. The station first launched in 1998.


Source: NASA

The International Space Station is currently scheduled to reach the end of its operational life in 2030

However, unlike mothballed aircraft, the ISS cannot be transported to a warehouse or graveyard facility for long-term storage. When the multi-national facility reaches the end of its life, it will crash back to Earth.

The USDV programme is meant to ensure that re-entry occurs in a controlled manner, away from populated areas.

To accomplish that, the vehicle will “rendezvous and dock with the ISS, as well as perform ISS attitude control, ISS translational manoeuvres and the final ISS orbit shaping and re-entry burns”, according to NASA.

Under the $843 million USDV contract, SpaceX will design and fabricate the de-orbit spacecraft, which NASA will own and operate for the duration of the mission. The vehicle is expected to burn up upon re-entry alongside the ISS.

Starship SN15 High-Altitude Flight Test

Source: SpaceX

SpaceX’s Starship heavy-launch system aims to deliver a reusable spacecraft capable of landing humans on the moon and celestial bodies beyond

The USDV contract continues a long winning streak for SpaceX, which in recent years has emerged as the dominant player in commercial launch services. The company supports both civil and military customers in the USA, including manned space flight with the Crew Dragon capsule.

SpaceX is also under a separate NASA contract to provide one uncrewed and two crewed launches as part of the USA’s Artemis programme to return humans to the lunar surface. SpaceX plans to use its still-under-development Starship heavy-launch system for those flights, which are currently scheduled to occur before 2027 as the Artemis III and Artemis IV missions.

SpaceX is also behind the space-based internet service provider Starlink, which has proven to be an essential tool for communication, command and control in the Ukraine War.

Space flight veteran Boeing, which was the prime contractor for the iconic Saturn V rockets that powered NASA astronauts to the moon during the Apollo programme, has struggled to catch up to SpaceX’s lead.

Earlier this month, Boeing joined company in the elite club of private firms with space vehicles that have carried humans to the ISS. The company’s Starliner capsule launched on 5 June, ferrying two astronauts to the space station.

Although the crew arrived safely, the long-delayed Starliner capsule has developed mechanical issues while docked at the ISS, forcing the astronauts to remain in orbit weeks beyond their scheduled return to Earth.

Boeing and NASA say the capsule could be safely flown back to terra firma in its current condition, but they are opting to proceed cautiously.