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Amid tension with Russia, Biden administration wants to extend the life of the International Space Station

If approved by international partners, and funded by Congress, the station would operate through 2030

Astronauts conduct a spacewalk to replace a faulty antenna on the International Space Station on Dec. 2. (NASA TV/Reuters)
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The Biden administration wants to extend the life of the International Space Station to 2030, keeping it aloft despite mounting tensions with Russia, its main partner on the orbiting laboratory.

The announcement by NASA on Friday comes a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that any new sanctions stemming from the growing crisis in Ukraine could lead to “a complete rupture of relations.” And last month, Russia fired a missile that destroyed an inactive weather satellite and created a large field of more than 1,500 pieces of debris that threatened the space station as well as a host of other satellites.

While the act was condemned by the Biden administration, and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called it “reckless and dangerous,” Nelson also said the attack was an act of the Russian military that surprised the Russian space agency.

“They’re probably just as appalled as we are,” Nelson said in an interview with The Washington Post at the time.

Tensions with Russia are now spilling into space

Despite those tensions, the White House and NASA want to keep its alliance with its international partners — and particularly Russia — going on the space station, a relationship that has traditionally been walled off from geopolitical turmoil on Earth.

Earlier this year, Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency, told CNN that it was committed to the station. “This is a family, where a divorce within a station is not possible,” he said.

In a statement to The Post on Friday, Nelson said the station had become a long-standing tool of diplomacy as well as science that needed to be continued. In addition to Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe are partners in the station in what NASA has called “the most politically complex space exploration program ever undertaken.”

Trouble aboard the space station sent astronauts fleeing for safety for the second time this year

“The International Space Station is a beacon of peaceful international scientific collaboration and for more than 20 years has returned enormous scientific, educational and technological developments to benefit humanity,” Nelson said.

The White House’s support for the ISS extension comes as China is assembling its own space station in Earth’s orbit. Nelson has called China a “very aggressive competitor.” He recently warned: “Watch the Chinese.”

The International Space Station can’t stay up there forever

In the statement Friday, he said that: “As more and more nations are active in space, it’s more important than ever that the United States continues to lead the world in growing international alliances and modeling rules and norms for the peaceful and responsible use of space.”

Currently, Congress has approved funding the station through 2024 and is expected to approve additional funds through 2030.

Despite the support to keep the station going, it’s not clear that the station itself will last that long. It has sprung leaks and been taken on a couple of wild rides due to errant thruster firings.

NASA is looking to the private sector to replace the station. In October, it awarded three contracts worth a total of $415.6 million to develop commercial space habitats.

The companies, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman, all have said that their stations would be ready by the end of the decade. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) If they’re not, however, NASA could lose the foothold it has held in low Earth orbit for more than 20 years.

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