NASA: Obama extends international space station operation until at least 2024

The international space station received a significant boost Wednesday when the Obama administration vowed to keep the laboratory in orbit at least until 2024, a four-year extension, NASA officials said Wednesday.

The decision is not a shocker, because the alternative would involve putting the ISS through a controlled de-orbit just six years from now. The $100 billion, nearly 1 million-pound laboratory — which took 13 years, more than 100 rocket and shuttle launches, and 160 spacewalks to construct — would crash into the vast open space of the South Pacific.

But the extension is a relief for NASA, which spends about $3 billion a year on the space station. It shores up the marketability of the ISS as a platform for scientific research and commercial operations, which can require many years of planning.

This is also good news for the private launch companies SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., which have contracts to supply cargo to the station and could compete for future contracts. SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada are interested in launching crews to the station by 2017, and the extension makes the competition for a contract look like a better investment of time and energy.

“What a tremendous gift the administration has given us,” said William H. Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program. “That really changes the way folks see their investment, especially the commercial side. It also changes the research side.”

There is unlikely to be much resistance to the decision in Congress, where the station has bipartisan support.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said the move will bolster the labor force on Florida’s Space Coast, which has been suffering since the decision to retire the space shuttle.

“This means more jobs at the Kennedy Space Center as we rebuild our entire space program,” Nelson said in a recorded statement. “Now, with 10-year extended life on the station, we process those payloads at KSC, we have the commercial rockets take both humans and cargo to the station.”

John Abney Culberson (R-Tex.) said the extension of the station was a foregone conclusion, citing national security.

“It’s inevitable and I’m delighted that NASA understands the value of ensuring that America continues to hold the high ground,” said Culberson, a member of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. He said that abandoning the station “would be like General Meade handing over Little Round Top voluntarily.” He added, “To the Chinese.”

NASA and its contractors are in the process of confirming that the station’s components are spaceworthy through at least 2028. “We see no technical show stoppers,” Gerstenmaier said.

He had been pushing for months for a commitment from the White House to keep the station flying past 2020. Still to be determined is whether the international partners, including Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency, will want to continue their involvement. Gersteinmaier said it could be several years before those agencies decide.

If necessary, he said, NASA will go it alone.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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