The Orlando Sentinel reports the Obama administration has decided to ask Congress to extend International Space Station operations to at least 2024.
The decision follows years of pressure by top NASA officials, who consider the station a critical steppingstone to future exploration. But a four-year extension likely would cost NASA about $3 billion a year from 2021 to 2024. That's a major chunk of the agency's annual budget, which is now about $17 billion, and a longer mission could force NASA to make tough financial decisions in the future.
The administration's approval, however, doesn't guarantee that the station, which has been continuously occupied since 2000, will survive past its current end date of 2020. At some point, Congress must approve a NASA budget that includes an extension of the station's life. The plan also must get the support of whoever wins the White House in 2016 — though the backing of President Barack Obama now might make it harder for the next administration to renege.
Still, the move is expected to reassure NASA's international partners, who have wondered how long the U.S. plans to commit to the station. NASA's announcement coincides with a visit to Washington this week by leaders of the world's space agencies.
The biggest obstacle, in my opinion, to ISS operations is Congress.
Many members of the House and Senate space authorization and appropriations committees consider the Space Launch System with its Orion crew vehicle to be NASA's most important program. Why? They haven't said, because three years after creating the program Congress still hasn't told NASA what the agency is to do with it.
That's why critics have dubbed it the Senate Launch System.
SLS was created to protect the jobs of those working for NASA centers and/or NASA contractors in the districts and states of those on the committees. Committee members benefit from generous campaign contributions by Boeing, Lockheed Martin and ATK, the major SLS contractors.
In August 2011, the Orlando Sentinel reported:
The rocket and capsule that NASA is proposing to return astronauts to the moon would fly just twice in the next 10 years and cost as much as $38 billion, according to internal NASA documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.
The money would pay for a new heavy-lift rocket and Apollo-like crew capsule that eventually could take astronauts to the moon and beyond. But it would not be enough to pay for a lunar landing — or for more than one manned test flight, in 2021...
According to preliminary NASA estimates, it would cost between $17 billion and $22 billion to ready the new rocket and Orion capsule for a test flight in December 2017 that would put an unmanned capsule into a lunar orbit. An additional $12 billion to $16 billion would be needed to launch the first crew on a lunar flyby in August 2021.
Here we are three years later, and Congress still hasn't approved any missions. In April 2013, NASA proposed the Asteroid Initiative to give SLS a specific use. So far, the House bill would prohibit an asteroid mission, while the Senate version lets NASA decide.
By decade's end, SpaceX should have its Falcon Heavy operational. The Golden Spike Company has already contracted for a commercial lunar lander design, and recently announced it was developing robotic rovers to return lunar samples to commercial astronauts landing on the Moon.
Within a few years, hopefully, someone will start asking questions in the halls of Congress about why the members of the space committees continue wasting money on protecting a government work force for a vehicle that's in competition with the private sector.
So the battle will come down to SLS versus ISS.
Personally, I'm rooting for the program actually producing results.
UPDATE January 8, 2014 7:15 PM EST — The Obama administration's Office of Science and Technology Policy released a statement this afternoon detailing their support for extending the ISS to 2024.
As more than 30 heads of space agencies from around the world prepare to gather in Washington January 9-10 for an unprecedented summit on the future of space exploration, we are pleased to announce that the Obama Administration has approved an extension of the International Space Station (ISS) until at least 2024. We are hopeful and optimistic that our ISS partners will join this extension effort and thus enable continuation of the groundbreaking research being conducted in this unique orbiting laboratory for at least another decade.
The statement listed several reasons for extending the station.
- It will allow NASA to complete necessary research activities aboard the ISS in support of planned long-duration human missions beyond low-Earth orbit
- ISS extension will extend the broader flow of societal benefits from research on the Station.
- It will give NASA and its private-sector partners time to more fully transition to the commercial space industry the transportation of cargo and crew to low-Earth-orbit.
- The ISS is also playing an increasingly important role in the study ofthe Earth and its changing climate.
- Extending the ISS will help cement continuing U.S. leadership in human spaceflight going forward.