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By James Dean
FLORIDA TODAY

The International Space Station should continue to serve as a research platform and astronaut destination for at least another decade, the White House andNASAannounced Wednesday.

The Obama administration confirmed its support for extending the orbiting complex's life to 2024, four years beyond its currently budgeted expiration date.

NASA said the decision would enable the $100 billion outpost to return valuable science, solidify the market for commercial space systems that will fly crews and cargo there - with many of those flights planned from Florida'sSpace Coast- and lay the groundwork for exploration farther out in space.

Having at least 10 more years "opens up a large avenue of research on board the space station," saidBill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA's human spaceflight operations. "We're starting to see a lot of benefits on the space station that have direct applications to folks here on the Earth."

Continuation of the roughly $3 billion-a-year program beyond 2020 will require approval from Congress and the next president as budgets are evaluated each year.

And it's not yet known whether NASA's international partners - Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada - are also on board.

Gerstenmaier said he believes they will be, but commitments may take several years and the U.S. would proceed even if some drop out.

"I fully intend our partners to see the benefit, and they will be there with us in the future," he said. "We're prepared to do what we have to do if the partners choose to take a different path."

Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute atGeorge Washington University, said Wednesday's announcement provided helpful U.S. leadership and some "breathing room" for those negotiations to continue.

He believes Congress will support a longer life for ISS.

"I think there's bipartisan interest in maximizing utilization of the station now that it's been built," he said. "They want to see utilization given a fair shake."

Station assembly began in 1998 and was completed with the final shuttle flights in 2011.

It is only in the past two years that the station crew, which now numbers six, has been able to devote a significant number of hours to research instead of maintenance.

NASA believes important research breakthroughs can be made in microgravity, such as drugs to combat bone loss or a salmonella vaccine, that would provide economic or health benefits on the ground.

But there has been concern that researchers outside NASA won't invest time and money into experiments that might take several years to develop without more time to perform them.

A non-profit based at theKennedy Space Center, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, manages that non-NASA research performed on the station.

Also, NASA this month will receive proposals from companies competing to fly astronauts to the station on privately developed rockets and spacecraft that will launch from the Cape, hopefully by 2017.

But if that timeline slips due to lack of funding or technical problems, the companies risked having only a few flights to recoup their investments if station operations ceased in 2020, and would likely charge NASA more for the service as a result.

"Now they can see a market that extends to at least 2024," said Gerstenmaier. "They see a much larger business base."

Commercial cargo flights already underway, includingSpaceXmissions launched fromCape Canaveral, would similarly benefit.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said the proposed extension would be good for KSC given its role supporting those launches and processing payloads bound for the station.

"This means more jobs at the Kennedy Space Center as we rebuild our entire space program," he said. "This is a robust future for KSC and our space program."

In addition, NASA wants more time to study the health effects of long-duration spaceflight on astronauts, which included bone loss and sometimes vision impairment, and to test improved life support systems and other technologies needed for a Mars mission.

"I really see ISS as that first step in exploration," said Gerstenmaier.

Without the station, which is the centerpiece of NASA's human spaceflight program, NASA might have more money available for robotic science missions or for human exploration missions planned with a heavy-lift rocket and capsule now under development.

A first crewed flight of theSpace Launch Systemand Orion capsule is targeted for launch from KSC in 2021, but the development work is challenged by a flat annual budget of about $2.8 billion.

The Obama administration had already extended the station's life from 2015 to 2020.

To win White House support for at least four more years, Gerstenmaier said NASA had to show it was technically feasible - studies say station hardware will last through 2028 - and demonstrate the potential for results.

Pace said NASA within a few years should perform a detailed cost-benefit analysis of continued station operations, similar to how it evaluates science missions nearing the end of their approved life.

"If utilization is producing good results and the operations costs are modest, I think it goes on," he said.

Gerstenmaier acknowledged NASA has struggled with how to portray the station's science return on investment, with part of the challenge being the years it can take for experiments to generate results.

Continuing to broaden the base of experiments beyond NASA will help, he said, and the agency is starting to see more commercial interest in funding microgravity experiments.

"We'll get a chance to see how well the station actually returns on some of the some ideas we have in terms of research," he said.

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