While scientists celebrated the successful launch and ongoing deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA had another thing to bring cheer in the new year – the extension of the International Space Station (ISS) from 2025 through 2030.
The announcement, through a NASA blog and US Vice President Kamala Harris on Twitter, commits to extend ISS operations through 2030, though it did not mention what, if any, additional funds would be made available to keep the ageing laboratory aloft.
NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) continues to suffer delays, the latest being an issue with one of the RS-25 engine flight controllers necessitating a replacement, although the agency continues to eye launch opportunities in the first half of 2022. The SLS is impressively over-budget and NASA has only so much taxpayer cash to spread around.
NASA must also work with its partners, such as the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Russia (in the form of Roscosmos), to keep the ISS ticking over. Roscosmos indicated last year that it would much rather do its own thing as its commitments wound down.
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However, with commercial stations unlikely to trouble orbit in the immediate future, keeping the ISS going a bit longer to allow what NASA described as a "seamless transition of capabilities" makes a certain amount of sense. NASA recently announced cash for space station design concepts and companies such as Axiom Space have designs on using the ISS as a platform from which to build out a commercial station. With the first module not due until 2024, a few more years of ISS operations would doubtless be welcome.
That said, the ISS is ageing. The first component was launched in 1998, and the station itself recently passed the milestone of 21 years of occupation. Last year cracks were detected in the Russian portion of the outpost and a minor leak was detected in 2019. Losses of air over time from the lab is not unusual, but with some components entering their third decade in space, keeping things going through 2030 could be seen as ambitious.
Especially with some partners getting a little trigger happy with the anti-satellite weapons. ®