By Andy Pasztor
The White House on Wednesday came out in support of extending operation of the international space station to at least 2024, four more years than currently planned, despite signs of waning enthusiasm for the project by some partners.
The announcement, which surprised many industry officials and members of Congress, came before release of the results of a high-level study detailing cost estimates for replacing or refurbishing parts necessary to keep the $100-billion orbiting laboratory functioning past the 2020 deadline now in effect.
The timing of the joint statement from top White House science adviser John Holdren and Charles Bolden, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, also appeared partly intended to influence an international summit on the future of space exploration set to kick off Thursday in Washington.
The statement said stretching out the station’s life will help “maintain American leadership in space.”
NASA officials and other supporters of the station have argued that keeping it going longer is essential, among other reasons, to help scientists understand the impact of long stints in space on the human body. The announcement said the deadline extension would allow completing such research in preparation for planned missions by U.S. astronauts to orbit an asteroid by 2025 and later reach Mars. Discussions also have included extending station operations to 2028.
There is continuing debate in Congress about the price tag for supporting the space station—roughly $3 billion a year for NASA alone—and broader disagreements about the direction of U.S. efforts to send manned spacecraft deeper into space. Some lawmakers believe that establishing a long-term presence on the moon should be the next step, before venturing further into the solar system.
Some of the same divergence from NASA’s plans has cropped up among several of the 14 other countries that are part of the consortium behind the station, which became operational 15 years ago.
Russian officials have discussed possibly going to the moon and launching their own station, while officials in Japan and some European countries are concerned about budget pressures and the scientific benefits derived from the space station.
China, which is pursuing a separate program to build an orbiting platform and put its crews on the moon, hasn’t participated in the station.
Undercutting the U.S. position, a compromise report released last August by NASA and other space agencies concluding that before striking out for Mars, exploration should focus on manned missions to, or around, the moon.
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