At a meeting of the space agency's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) on Thursday, officials expressed fears that the station could fall on humans if it enters the atmosphere uncontrolled.
A special "space tug" would have to be built to pull the station out of its orbit, the meeting said.
ASAP President Patricia Sanders said, "The day is inevitable when the ISS will reach the end of its life. We may not be able to determine that day. It is inconceivable that we will allow the station to de-orbit uncontrollably."
"The station is too big and would pose an extreme danger to people in a large area of the Earth," Sanders said, adding, "If we want to prevent a catastrophe, we need to fund it now."
NOT THE FIRST BUT RISKY IN SIZE
A spacecraft leaving orbit is nothing new for NASA.
But the size of the ISS poses a greater risk and requires more precision.
At 358 meters long from end to end, the ISS could easily crush an entire stadium if it fell and broke through the atmosphere in one piece.
"MUST BE DECOMMISSIONED BY 2030"
NASA says it wants to decommission the ISS by 2030 and plans to do so with a tugboat of some kind.
Accordingly, the tug would push the station into the atmosphere and allow parts of the ISS to fall far away from settlements while it burns itself out.
NASA officials said about $180 million has been allocated to "begin development" of the tug. But actually building the station could cost up to $1 billion.
NASA has requested that the budget for next year be increased to $27.2 billion to cover these costs.
On the other hand, the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023, signed by US President Joe Biden in June, means that the space agency is likely to face budget cuts.
Sanders states that NASA will have to make "difficult choices" if these cuts materialize.