JOHNSON SPACE CENTER — The International Space Station will receive a four-year extension, keeping the orbiting laboratory flying for at least the next 10 years, White House and NASA officials said Wednesday.
The extension — a previous plan called for the $100 billion station to shut down in 2020 — will give the space agency more time to research and prepare for long-duration manned missions beyond low-Earth orbit, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and White House science adviser John Holden said in a joint statement.
NASA contributes about $3 billion a year to the operation of the space station, a joint project with international partners including Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency.
The space agency hopes to conduct a human mission to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars sometime in the 2030s.
Testing deep-space technology on the station and researching human health risks associated with long-duration human missions are critical to the success of those missions, according to NASA. The extension creates an opportunity to increase the ambition and scope of projects in orbit.
Extending the station’s lifetime will also benefit the commercial space industry as NASA continues to outsource cargo delivery flights to companies such as Orbital Science Corp. and SpaceX, Holden and Bolden said in the statement. It will allow for more commercial flights, “resulting in more competitive pricing, possible additional new private-sector bidders, and ultimately more U.S. commercial satellite launches.”
The first commercial crew flights ferrying astronauts to the station are scheduled for 2017, and now stand to benefit from a lower per-flight cost, officials said. New commercial spaceflight capabilities give NASA more time to focus on research and the development of technology for deep-space exploration.
County resident James Oberg, a spaceflight operations specialist who spent more than 20 years at NASA’s Mission Control, said it wasn’t the first extension given to the space station, and hopefully wouldn’t be the last.
The research and science produced at the station are critical to present and future NASA missions, Oberg said.
“It’s absolutely essential to deep-space exploration,” he said.
Endurance is key for long-term human missions, and that endurance can best be tested on the space station, Oberg said. The first yearlong expedition on the station will begin in 2015.
The space station, which has been continuously occupied for more than 13 years, will require maintenance and upkeep over the next decade and possibly longer.
However, it was built for long-term servicing and replacements to keep it safely operational for years, Oberg said.
A commercial resupply mission to the station was delayed Wednesday after radiation from a solar flare forced Orbital Sciences Corp. to call off the launch of its Cygnus spacecraft. A new launch time has been tentatively set for today.
The radiation, which poses no danger to crew members on the station, could have interfered with critical systems on the rocket used to launch Cygnus, Orbital officials said.