Space Station Partners Shooting for 2028

Space Station Partners Shooting for 2028

Congress has yet to approve President Obama’s proposal to extend U.S. support for the International Space Station (ISS) to 2020, but the partners in the ISS program are working on certifying the ISS for operating eight years even beyond that — to 2028. That year will mark the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first ISS modules, Zarya and Unity.

There seems to be strong support in Congress for extending ISS to “at least 2020” as proposed by the President, but the cost for operating it beyond 2015 is one of factors cited by Administration officials for also proposing the cancellation of the Constellation program. In their view it is a zero-sum game. If extending ISS operations and investing in more science and technology development activities is desired, then the Constellation program has to go; there is not enough money for it all. The idea of cancelling Constellation has not been warmly received in Congress, however.

The other partners also will have to convince their political leaders to continue supporting the ISS. In the joint statement from the Heads of Agency meeting in Japan last week, the partners “emphasized their common intent to undertake the necessary procedures within their respective governments to reach consensus later this year on the continuation of the ISS to the next decade.”

The Heads of Agency meeting brings together the leaders of the space agencies cooperating in the ISS program: the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada. In their joint statement, they also said that “there were no identified technical constraints” to continuing operations to at least 2020, and that they are “currently working to certify on-orbit elements through 2028.”

The U.S. ISS modules have a 15-year design life, but spacecraft often operate well past their design lives. The longest operating space station, Russia’s Mir, had a 15-year life. Its first module was launched in 1986 and the facility was deorbited in 2001. How engineers will certify that modules, solar arrays, robot arms and other hardware can withstand the harsh space environment for twice that time will be an interesting exercise.

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