The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

The US would like to extend operations of the ISS from 2020 to at least 2024, but the international partners may take years to decide if they’ll join in. (credit: NASA)

Four more years

The US announces plans to extend the life of the ISS to at least 2024. Will its international partners follow suit?

Bookmark and Share

While Washington politics is often criticized for short-term thinking, it does have some ability to look to the (relatively) long term. Since last year, there’s been plenty of discussion about 2016; specifically, who might decide to run for President and what their chances of winning the White House might be, even though the first primaries and caucuses are still two years away. That was certainly the case last week, as pundits weighed the effects of events on the as-yet-unannounced candidacies of various political figures.

However, there was also some very long-term thinking Washington this week: not about 2016 or 2020, but instead 2024. The Obama Administration announced Wednesday its intent to extend the life of the International Space Station (ISS), who the partner nations have agreed to operate to 2020, to at least 2024. That additional four years—with the option to further extend it to perhaps 2028—is designed to give space agencies, other researchers, and commercial transportation operators more time to access the station. However, that decision is a moot point if the international partners don’t agree to keep the station running as well.

Bolden and Le Gall
NASA administrator Charles Bolden (right) discusses international cooperation in space, including on the ISS, at a Heads of Space Agencies Summit Friday as CNES president Jean-Yves Le Gall looks on. (credit: J. Foust)

Creating a ten-year planning horizon

The administration’s announcement was timed to coincide with the International Space Exploration Forum, a closed-door meeting of the heads of more than 30 space agencies around the world held Thursday at the State Department in Washington. However, the administration had to move up their announcement by a day when news of the proposed extension leaked to the Orlando Sentinel, which reported the news Tuesday night.

“It’s allowing us to have a planning horizon really ten years long,” said Gerstenmaier. “That really the changes the way folks see their investment” in station operations.

In a brief, hastily arranged teleconference with reporters midday Wednesday, NASA officials confirmed those reports. Later in the day, NASA administrator Charles Bolden and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy director John Holdren issued a joint statement that formally announced the administration’s decision to seek an extension of the ISS to 2024.

In their statement, Bolden and Holdren outlined several reasons for the decision. Those reasons included performing research and technology demonstrations to support human missions beyond Earth orbit, extending “the broader flow of societal benefits” of other research performed on the station, and better supporting the business cases for companies transporting cargo and, later, crew to and from the station by creating demand for additional flights. “The Obama Administration’s decision to extend its life until at least 2024 will allow us to maximize its potential, deliver critical benefits to our Nation and the world, and maintain American leadership in space,” they wrote of the ISS in their statement.

Agreeing to operate the station to at least 2024 also provides a long-term commitment that NASA officials believe can make it easier for potential users of the station to perform research there. “It’s allowing us to have a planning horizon really ten years long,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in Wednesday’s media teleconference. “That really the changes the way folks see their investment” in station operations.

That decision is at least a partial victory for space station advocates, who had been pressing for a decision on an extension for some time (see “Asking the big questions for the next ten years”, The Space Review, February 11, 2013). Studies last year examined the potential of extending the ISS out as far as 2028, when the station’s oldest modules turned 30 years old, while NASA and others, like the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), sought to increase use of the station to demonstrate why its life should be extended.

While last week’s announcement only offered a four-year extension, Gerstenmaier said the recent engineering studies showed the station could operate out to 2028. “We did a very rigorous analysis” that the station could operate until 2028, he said in Wednesday’s call. “The hardware can last until 2028.” Extending it four years, though, he added, “opened the horizon enough that we could get the benefit from the decision” while leaving the door open for a further extension down the road.

John Shannon, Boeing’s program manager for the ISS, concurred with that technical assessment. “The vast majority of structural and mechanical components clear easily the 2028 timeframe,” he told reporters at a media breakfast Wednesday morning in Arlington, Virginia, about a space exploration conference tied to the international forum. That assessment, which focused on the US segment of the station, was completed and delivered to NASA last fall. A few structural elements, such as the P6 truss segment, are the subject of additional finite element model analysis, but Shannon said in general “there are no issues out to 2028.”

“Keeping ISS flying—and continuing the important research that goes on there—means taxpayers get more bang for the buck from this unique laboratory,” said Mikulski.

Whether the administration seeks to extend the ISS to 2024 or to 2028, that decision will require the support of Congress. In Wednesday’s teleconference, David Weaver, head of communications for NASA, said the agency started reaching out to key members of the House and Senate on Tuesday. “Anecdotally, I understand the reaction has been positive,” he said.

And, indeed, several key members of Congress publicly expressed their support for the decision. “I applaud the decision to extend the operations of the International Space Station,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a statement Wednesday. “Keeping ISS flying—and continuing the important research that goes on there—means taxpayers get more bang for the buck from this unique laboratory.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, also endorsed the extension, citing the benefits of continued ISS operations for Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in his state. “This means more jobs at the Kennedy Space Center as we rebuild our entire space program,” he said in a brief video message provided by his office. “This is a robust future for KSC and our space program.”

In the House, two top Democrats on the House Science Committee offered a more nuanced statement of support for the decision. “I am pleased that the Administration is initiating an important dialogue with its international partners on the extension of ISS operations to at least 2024,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the full committee, in a statement. “I look forward to further details on the Administration’s proposal and on the planned priorities and objectives for ISS activities during the proposed extension.”

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the committee’ space subcommittee, offered a similar sentiment. “I support the Administration’s initiative to propose extending ISS operations and utilization to at least 2024,” she said in the same statement, but added that “we will need to ensure that any decision to extend ISS is accompanied by the necessary resources so that NASA’s other important missions in science, aeronautics, and human exploration are not impacted adversely.”

Republican members of Congress were more taciturn about the extension, but at least one key GOP member backed it. “It’s inevitable and I’m delighted that NASA understands the value of ensuring that America continues to hold the high ground,” Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), the vice chair of the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee that funds NASA, told the Washington Post. Terminating the station “would be like General Meade handing over Little Round Top voluntarily… to the Chinese.”

Aleksy Krasnov, director of human spaceflight for the Russian space agency Roscosmos, said Friday the US decision to seek an ISS extension to at least 2024 was a “positive sign.” (credit: J. Foust)

Getting the partners on board

Even with that Congressional support, though, the administration’s decision is meaningless unless the international partners—Russia, Japan, Canada, and member states of the European Space Agency (ESA)—also agree to continue operating the station beyond 2020. While most partners expressed an interest in using the station beyond 2020, getting them to formally agree and commit the necessary resources to do so is a process that could take years.

The formal summary of Thursday’s closed forum, in carefully crafted if diplomatically vague language, shed little light on interest in operating the ISS beyond 2020. “As part of this common vision for space exploration, ISEF participants recognized the importance of the International Space Station (ISS) as the largest, most complex international scientific and engineering project in history,” it stated. The summary added that “the ISS partners encouraged expanded international access to this unprecedented facility, and noted its continuing value to future exploration endeavors.”

However, at a follow-on meeting Friday in Washington, the Heads of Space Agencies Summit, organized by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), representatives of a number of partner nations expressed support for the concept of extending the ISS beyond 2020.

“We have a fantastic tool with the space station,” said Le Gall. “This is why the decision taken by NASA to extend the duration of the station until 2024 is a very good decision.”

“I think it’s a positive sign of what the space station can do, and it’s also in line with how we, nationally, have been thinking about the future of the space station,” said Aleksy Krasnov, director of human spaceflight for the Russian space agency Roscosmos, during one of several panel sessions during Friday’s meeting. “We will be working nationally to extend our elements. Technically, there is no showstopper to use it until 2028.”

“I think the extension is quite a good message,” said Enrico Saggese, president of the Italian space agency ASI. The extension, he said, would allow more time to get a return on investment on the research activities ASI and other European nations are performing on the station’s Columbus module, provided by ESA. Extending the ISS to 2024 sends “a very good message,” he said.

“We have a fantastic tool with the space station,” said Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of the French space agency CNES, also citing the research potential of the ISS. “This is why the decision taken by NASA to extend the duration of the station until 2024 is a very good decision.”

At Wednesday’s media breakfast, Johann-Dietrich Wörner, head of the German space agency DLR, also expressed his support for an ISS extension even before it was formally announced by NASA. “Germany was always saying that we should use the International Space Station until 2020 and beyond,” he said.

While nations expressed support for extending the ISS, getting them to back those statements up with funding may be far more challenging. Wörner noted that while Germany is the biggest contributor to ESA’s share of ISS operation costs, other member states are more reticent to participate. “Some of the member states are reducing their financial support due to the financial crisis, and we are now in a very complicated discussion process at ESA concerning the ISS in the future.”

For ESA, the next major milestone in the decision-making process regarding the ISS extension will likely not be until after a ministerial meeting in December, said Thomas Reiter, director of human spaceflight for the agency, at a press conference at the end of Friday’s summit. That meeting, he said, will be focused on securing funding on continuing operations to 2020. “Once we have done this, then it is the right time to discuss how we are continuing beyond 2020,” he said.

Reiter indicated that any decision by ESA to support ISS operations beyond 2020 may be tied to Europe’s role in human exploration plans beyond Earth orbit. In 2012, ESA agreed to develop the service module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft in lieu of building additional ISS cargo spacecraft as its contribution to ISS operations. “The decision on how to proceed beyond 2020 very largely depends on further scenarios on how will we go beyond low Earth orbit, how will we do it in the next decade.”

Naoki Okumura, president of the Japanese space agency JAXA, suggested he was taken by surprise by the US decision. “As far as JAXA is concerned, we first learned about the US intention to extend the ISS to 2024 yesterday,” Okumura, speaking through a translator, said at Friday’s press conference. JAXA, like the other ISS partners, has only committed to ISS operations to 2020, and he said JAXA would soon start discussions in the Japanese government about a further extension.

Even the Russians indicated there would be some fiscal challenges with any extension of the ISS beyond 2020. “Policywise, it will take some effort to adjust resources that will be associated with space station operations,” said Krasnov. Other Russian officials at the summit said they’re working on a plan for the Russian space program covering the period of 2015 to 2026, and would seek to incorporate extended ISS operations into that program.

“It is highly unlikely that any of us are going to be willing to go through the process of increasing the partnership by going back and opening up the treaty,” Bolden said.

That uncertainty among the partners raises the possibility that one or more of them could decide not to continue ISS operations beyond 2020. On Wednesday, Gerstenmaier indicated NASA was prepared should a partner drop out in 2020. “We’re prepared to do what we have to do if the partners choose to take a different path,” he said. He declined to speculate what would happen if only Russia joined the US on the station post-2020 beyond that, technically, the two countries alone could operate the station. “I fully intend our partners to see the benefit and be there with us in the future.”

“We could continue to operate the station, but that’s not the intent,” Bolden said at Friday’s press conference when asked a similar question. “If it gets to the point where it’s the US and Russia operating the International Space Station, it’s not much of an international space station.”

Some suggested the extension opened the possibility of expanding the ISS partnership by including other nations. Wörner recalled Wednesday that when he was interviewed by the Augustine Committee in 2009, he recommended that the ISS partnership be expanded, specifically suggesting China and India. He didn’t expect the matter to come up during Thursday’s official forum, but that “we should be open to combining our forces.”

At Friday’s summit, Xu Dazhe, the new head of China’s space agency CNSA, said he was “very happy” to hear about plans to extend the ISS, but not because China was interested in participating in that project. He said that China has plans to develop its own space station, to be completed between 2018 and 2022. With the ISS continuing into the 2020s “we will have a companion up there,” he said through a translator.

Bolden, though, appeared to rule out any formal expansion of the ISS partnership. “It is highly unlikely that any of us are going to be willing to go through the process of increasing the partnership by going back and opening up the treaty,” he said, citing the difficultly of putting together the original partnership agreement. “It was painful, and no one wants to do that again.” Instead, he said partner nations are encouraged to make their own agreements with other nations who seek to participate in some way on the ISS, such as by flying an experiment or other payload.

While last week’s announcement is seen as a major milestone for the ISS, even NASA officials know it is only the start of a process that will take much longer to complete as the other partners decide whether or not to continue on the ISS beyond 2020. “They’ll continue to evaluate that over the next several years,” Gerstenmaier said Wednesday. “I think in general they see this as a positive step that we’re moving forward.”

And the decision has political implications in the US as well. One observer noted that budget proposals submitted by the White House typically look out over the next five years. The fiscal year 2017 budget proposal, the last to be submitted by the Obama Administration, in early 2016, would thus include projections out to fiscal year 2021—the first year after the 2020 end of the ISS previously agreed to. A projected end of the ISS then could prove awkward, particularly for any Democratic candidates seeking to run on the administration’s record on space policy. Announcing plans to extend the ISS to 2024 smoothes over that bump, even if the international partners haven’t signed up for the extension in the next two years.

Such projections, though, have little significance, particularly when a new administration will take over in a year. The successor to the Obama Administration likely will revisit the administration’s space policy, including that decision to seek to extend the ISS until at least 2024. In the end, long-term political planning could trump even longer-term space planning.