Musk's SpaceX gets $843 million to help discard International Space Station around 2030

Illustration shows SpaceX logo and Elon Musk photo

By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -NASA awarded SpaceX $843 million to build a vehicle capable of pushing the International Space Station into Earth's atmosphere for its planned destruction around 2030, it said on Wednesday, a task originally meant for Russia's thrusters.

Under its new NASA contract, SpaceX will build what the space agency called the U.S. Deorbit Vehicle to deorbit the space station and avoid risks to populated areas, with NASA taking ownership of the craft and handling the deorbiting operation.

The football field-sized research lab, led primarily by the United States and Russia, has been continuously staffed with government astronauts during its some 24 years of operation, but its aging components have led NASA and its foreign partners to set 2030 as a planned retirement date.

The U.S., Japan, Canada and the countries under the European Space Agency have committed to the space station partnership through 2030, while Russia has agreed to remain a partner through 2028, the date through which the Russian space agency Roscosmos believes its hardware can last.

The scientific cooperation aboard the ISS, orbiting some 250 miles above, has survived years of geopolitical strife on Earth, including Russia's war in Ukraine that has ended nearly all other cooperative ties with the Western world.

Holding the U.S.-Russian alliance together is largely a technical interdependency in which Russian thrusters maintain the station's orbital altitude and U.S. solar arrays keep its power running.

Those Russian thrusters were originally meant to push the ISS into Earth's atmosphere at the end of its life. But in recent years NASA has sought its own deorbit abilities should Russia bow out of the alliance earlier than planned or become unable to do the task itself.

The U.S. deorbit plan was accelerated in recent years as the White House and other government entities pressured NASA to make contingency plans amid souring relations with Russia.

For after 2030, NASA has been funding early development of privately built space stations in low-Earth orbit to maintain U.S. presence in the cosmic region, with Airbus and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin involved in those efforts.

Though the market for private space stations is not fully understood, U.S. officials believe a commercial ISS replacement is crucial to compete with China's newer space station in low-Earth orbit.

NASA and China are both racing to the moon. The U.S. space agency is investing billions of dollars, partnering with several countries and companies including SpaceX to return the first humans to the moon since 1972.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Chris Reese and Josie Kao)