January 13, 2014
Extending International Space Station operations will give partners in the orbiting outpost a better chance to recover their massive investments, and perhaps add momentum to the White House push to commercialize low Earth orbit (LEO).
That, at least, was the stated hope as President Barack Obama's top space officials announced his intent to keep the space station flying until 2024—four years short of the spacecraft's estimated structural lifetime—at an estimated cost of $3 billion a year.
The four-year extension is far from a done deal, coming as it did with only a one-day notice to Congress and a lot of uncertainty about whether NASA's international partners will be able to follow suit. Money previously programmed to deorbit the station will go for extended operations instead, and initial congressional response was positive. But long-term federal funding is uncertain at best, and the international partnership is feeling the strain, as some member nations look for a faster return on their space spending (see page 20).
Ultimately, it may well be the private sector that determines if the estimated $100 billion spent worldwide on the ISS was worth it. Longer term, the extended service life will give the growing international space-exploration movement more time to test the hardware it needs to move beyond LEO.
“It is allowing us to have a planning horizon that is really 10 years long,” says William Gerstenmaier, NASA's human-spaceflight chief. “That really changes the way folks see their investment, especially the commercial side.”
With a 2020 deadline, he says, researchers may gain only a year or so of on-orbit operation after spending three or four years getting a microgravity experiment ready. The life extension “opens up a large avenue of research on board the space station,” he said in a brief Jan. 8 telephone press conference.
That research is already starting to bear fruit, with advances in drug research, robotics technology and the life sciences needed to mitigate the health effects of long-term human exploration in deep space (AW&ST July 29, 2013, p. 14). While NASA also is using the station to expand its skills and technology for deep-space operations, including logistics, communications and life support, the spinoff benefits on Earth promise to be a major administration selling point for the longer service life.