International Space Station Could Orbit Even Longer: US Moves To Extend Operation

By Ben Wolford on January 8, 2014 10:50 PM EST

International Space Station
The U.S. has moved to extend the life of the International Space Station. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The International Space Station won't die just yet. On Wednesday, the residential orbiter received a mission extension from the United States government, a move that will likely keep it floating overhead for the next 10 years. "The extension of ISS operation will allow NASA and the international space community to accomplish a number of important goals," said White House science adviser John P. Holdren and NASA Director Charles Bolden in a joint statement.

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The space station, launched in 1998, was only scheduled to last until 2020, when it would be disabled and sent on a collision course with the Pacific Ocean, The Washington Post reported. The commitment from the Obama Administration extends American involvement through 2024 but requires agreement from four other space agencies. According to The Post, the decision was more or less expected, given the enormous investment of time and capital that went into building the space station.

The extension comes more than two years after the U.S. retired its space shuttle program. Since then, other nations and private companies have been leading missions to bring supplies and station crew back and forth. The Russians are swapping out the six-person crew, and American companies have contracts to ferry supplies. SpaceX has already launched missions, and a company called Orbital Sciences is scheduled for its first transport mission on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports that NASA is subsidizing the private development of other manned transporters. The Sierra Nevada Corporation, based in Sparks, Nev., is working on a mini-shuttle called the Dream Chaser that could start carrying up to seven astronauts at a time to the ISS starting in 2016. These kinds of partnerships are one of the main reasons the administration quickly extended the program.

But NASA says there's other unfinished business. The space agency is trying to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars before 2040. "A related critical function of ISS is testing the technologies and spacecraft systems necessary for humans to safely and productively operate in deep space," Holdren and Bolden said. They added that research there could lead to spinoff medical breakthroughs and robotic surgical technology, and it has been a useful tool in climate study.

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