will get four more years to operate the International Space Station under a White House decision announced Wednesday.
Previously set for controlled re-entry in 2020, the orbiting outpost is now scheduled to continue operating until 2024, according to David Weaver, the U.S. space agency’s chief spokesman. That will give researchers and potential commercial investors a longer “planning horizon” and potentially attract more business to the underutilized facility, said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations.
Still to be determined is the role’s international partners will play in the extended ISS operations, and whether Congress will support the change with adequate funding. Gerstenmaier said in a brief press conference Jan. 8 that funds planned for deorbiting the station after 2020 will be used instead to keep it running.
That costs the U.S. about $3 billion a year, he said, but funding details for the post-2020 era are unknowable now. The European Space Agency has a top-level budget meeting in early December that will decide how much support it will continue to give the space station, and Germany and France are split over funding levels for the ISS and upgrades to the Ariane launch vehicle.
Gerstenmaier said NASA has been working with all of its ISS partners, which also include Canada, Japan and Russia, on the extension since last fall.
“We’ve been talking to them for several months about our intent,” Gerstenmaier said. “They were involved in all the hardware studies, to go look to see if station could extend. This is a big deal for them to say whether they’ll be able to continue with station or not. They’ll continue to evaluate that over the next several years, and I think in general they see this as a positive step.”
Also uncertain is just how much private investment an extended station service life will attract. Gerstenmaier said the longer timeline will give NASA and its partners more time to realize a return on the investment in the station, and to identify potentially profitable activities that could motivate the private sector to help fund operations.
“We’re starting to see some commercial companies making investment in research that they want to fly on station, so there’s actually funding coming to the station from sources other than the government, which is a plus,” he said.
The White House announcement comes as the heads of 33 international space agencies gather in Washington for a private summit organized by the U.S., in parallel with a public symposium on international cooperation in space exploration organized by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA). Jean-Michel Contant, the IAA secretary general, said the symposium will continue work started three years ago on organizing all of the planet’s spacefaring nations for a push beyond low Earth orbit.
The space station extension, which involves a subset of those nations, will surely come up in the public and private sessions. Gerstenmaier noted that the ISS is an extremely useful platform for space-testing the hardware that will be needed for the push deeper into the Solar System.