White House approves space station extension until 2024

NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, Expedition 38 Flight Engineer, participates in the second of two spacewalks on the exterior of the International Space Station.
NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, Expedition 38 Flight Engineer, participates in the second of two spacewalks on the exterior of the International Space Station.

One of those bright stars in the sky might stay lit a little longer. 

The White House has approved an extension for the International Space Station’s operation from 2020 until at least 2024, NASA officials said Wednesday.

“This is a tremendous announcement for us here in the space station world and really for all of human space flight,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, told reporters during a conference call. “Ten years from today is a pretty far reaching, pretty strategic looking decision.”

Extending the $100 billion space station will alter the way that research institutions and private companies can continue their studies while planning for a longer horizon. 

“We’re starting to see a lot of benefits on the space station that have direct application to folks here on the earth,” Gerstenmaier said, pointing to research they’ve conducted in pharmaceuticals, materials processing, climate change, 3D printing, dark matter, and microgravity. “We have a lot to learn. We’re starting to learn how the human can live in a long duration microgravity environment…we really need to use this unique facility to really understand that.”

It can take several years to get a project approved and on board the station, and often longer to see the results, so some research and commercial partners were hesitant to get their hardware ready if they would only see limited operation time.

This is the second time the station’s life has been extended under the Obama administration. The decision will also need to be approved as part of NASA’s budget by Congress and get support from the next president.

Representatives for both Florida senators voiced their support for the White House’s move.

“This is a good decision for scientific research, and creates more market certainty for the growing commercial launch sector,” Alex Conant, spokesman for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, told msnbc.com. “Taxpayers have invested billions of dollars in the ISS--if it can operate safely beyond 2020, then we should continue to capitalize on the investment.”

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson tweeted, “Keeping the International Space Station up for the next ten years is a big deal.” In a recorded statement, he added, “This means more jobs at the Kennedy Space Center as we rebuild our entire space program."

Since the U.S. space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA has been paying Russia to ferry American astronauts back and forth between the station in a Soyuz spacecraft. An extension of the International Space Station will allow more time for private American companies to start sending astronauts into orbit, which won’t happen until at least 2017.

"Launching American astronauts to the space station from U.S. soil has also been a top priority of the Obama Administration," NASA administrator Charles Bolden and Obama science advisor John P. Holdren wrote in a blog post Wednesday. "With the first commercial crew flight scheduled for 2017, some had questioned the value of a commercial crew investment that would have lasted only three years.  Extending ISS to 2024, with a concomitant increased number of flights, will drive down the per-flight cost and make this investment even more attractive. " 

A recent technical evaluation found that the equipment and physical hardware on board the ISS could operate until 2028. The United States’ international partners were part of this assessment, and Gerstenmaier said “they want to move forward” with the 2024 extension, but still have to get approval from their governments, which could take years. “We’re prepared to do what we have to do if the partners choose to take a different path,” he added.

The ISS has been continuously occupied for more than 13 years since its first expedition in November, 2000. It has been visited by 204 people, according to NASA.