After word broke that the White House had backed plans to extend the life of the International Space Station to at least 2024, the administration scrambled to make the news official, holding a midday media telecon Wednesday to discuss the extension. Late in the day, NASA administrator Charles Bolden and presidential science advisor John Holdren issued a joint statement about the extension.
“The extension of ISS operation will allow NASA and the international space community to accomplish a number of important goals,” Bolden and Holdren wrote. Those goals include enhanced research utilization of the station, technology demonstration and long-duration human spaceflight research to support human exploration beyond Earth orbit, and supporting commercial space activities, including the transport of cargo and crew to the station. “The Obama Administration’s decision to extend its life until at least 2024 will allow us to maximize its potential, deliver critical benefits to our Nation and the world, and maintain American leadership in space,” Bolden and Holdren concluded.
That decision has won support from some key members of Congress. “I applaud the decision to extend the operations of the International Space Station,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in a statement. “Keeping ISS flying—and continuing the important research that goes on there—means taxpayers get more bang for the buck from this unique laboratory.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) endorsed the extension, citing the benefits of continued ISS operations for Kennedy Space Center in his state. “This means more jobs at the Kennedy Space Center as we rebuild our entire space program,” he said in a brief video message provided by his office. “This is a robust future for KSC and our space program.”
The Democratic leadership of the House Science Committee backed the planned extension, while asking for more information. “I am pleased that the Administration is initiating an important dialogue with its international partners on the extension of ISS operations to at least 2024,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the full committee, in an emailed statement. “I look forward to further details on the Administration’s proposal and on the planned priorities and objectives for ISS activities during the proposed extension.” Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the committee’s space subcommittee, offered similar qualified support in the same statement.
The proposed extension also got the support of a Republican member of Congress. “It’s inevitable and I’m delighted that NASA understands the value of ensuring that America continues to hold the high ground,” Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) told the Washington Post. Terminating the station “would be like General Meade handing over Little Round Top voluntarily… to the Chinese.”
While continuing ISS operations to at least 2024 has the support of many on Capitol Hill, it’s not yet clear what kind of support it has among NASA’s international partners on the program. “We’ve talked to the partners about this,” NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations Bill Gerstenmaier said during Wednesday’s media telecon. He added they had been involved in the technical studies regarding the feasibility of operating the ISS as late as 2028, and have been aware of NASA’s interest in extending the station for several months. However, he acknowledged that an extension was a “big deal” for them. “They’ll continue to evaluate that over the next several years. I think in general they see this as a positive step that we’re moving forward” on this, he said.
One European official said Wednesday that while he endorsed an extension, getting others in Europe to support continued use of ISS may be a challenge. Germany supports use of the ISS “until 2020 and beyond,” said Johann-Dietrich Wörner, head of the German space agency DLR, at a media breakfast Wednesday in advance of an international space exploration conference and heads of agencies summit meeting Thursday and Friday in Washington. Germany is the biggest supporter of the ISS within ESA, and has lobbied other ESA member nations to fund Europe’s share of station operations.
“However, there are some problems,” he added. “Some of the member nations are reducing their financial support due to the economic crisis, and now we are in a very complicated discussion process at ESA concerning the future of the ISS.” He said ESA members need to “intensify” their use of the station rather than look to whatever comes after the station.
An extension of the ISS could open the door to adding new partners to the program, particular if some partners decide not to extend their commitment to the station beyond 2020. Wörner recalled suggesting India and China join the partnership when he was asked about it by the Augustine Committee in 2009. China, of course, creates some geopolitical complications, which he acknowledged. “I don’t think we will discuss this matter tomorrow,” he said, referring to the closed-door heads of agencies summit meeting Thursday at the State Department.