Work on the International Space Station has been slated to continue for at least through 2024, giving NASA the experience and information they'll need to send astronauts into deep space.
NASA has announced that the White House approved a four-year extension to financially support the orbiting space station. The space agency has been pushing for the government to extend the life of the station from 2021 to 2024 at a cost of about $3 billion a year.
NASA tweeted this photo of astronaut Mike Hopkins riding on the end of the International Space Station's robotic arm during a spacewalk to replace a malfunctioning coping pump on Dec. 24. (Photo: NASA via Twitter)
The $3 billion price tag takes a big bite out of the agency's $17 billion a year budget, but NASA officials maintain that the space station is a crucial step in getting humans out into deep space.
"I really see the International Space Station as the first step in exploration," said David Weaver, NASA's associate administrator for the Office of Communications, during a teleconference. "We're getting a significant amount of research on the space station. It lets us look back at the Big Bang. It gives us clues on dark matter. The space station is really hitting its stride. We're doing a lot of science there. It's a pretty productive time."
Extending the life of the space station, which took 13 years to construct and recently marked 15 years in orbit, is a much better scenario for scientists around the world than abandoning the orbiting lab and letting it fall out of orbit and crash into the ocean.
The space station, which is about the length of a football field and carries several robotic arms, has a talking robot and a humanoid robot. It also has been the site of about 1,500 scientific experiments and is expected to receive dozens more when t he next commercial cargo mission launches.
Both Weaver and William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said it's important to keep the space station running for commercial partners and researchers, who are working on projects in such areas as pharmaceuticals, materials processing and climate change, to use.
"This really helps establish that commercial transportation sector," said Weaver. "It also allows the private sector to experiment with microgravity research."
Commercial companies SpaceX and Orbital Sciences only recently signed up to ferry supplies back and forth to the station, and with the extension, they'll be able to advance their technology with repeated trips to the station. That experience will help the companies develop the technology and skill to push their missions out beyond Earth's orbit.
"What a tremendous gift the administration has given us," Weaver said. "From a biased NASA standpoint, we've talked about going beyond lower Earth orbit and we've got a lot to learn... If we are going to do anything with deep space exploration, mature the commercial market and continue or space experiments, we need a healthy, viable and sustainable station. And we needed a longer horizon."
NASA is committed, Weaver said, to having the station serve it long-term exploration needs. The extension will enable NASA to continue its research, for instance, on microgravity's effects on the human body, along with the affects of living in space for a year or more.
Gerstenmaier noted that the space station's hardware is projected to last until at least 2028. In several more years, NASA will revisit the issue of how long to extend the station's mission.
The first crew to live aboard the space station launched on a Soyuz spacecraft on Oct. 31, 2000, as Expedition 1, and consisted of one NASA astronaut, Commander Bill Shepherd, and two Russian cosmonauts, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko.
There have been people living and working on the orbiter ever since.
Over the years, astronauts have conducted more than 174 spacewalks , totaling about 1,100 hours -- the equivalent of nearly 46 days -- to build and maintain the station.
This article, NASA gets OK to keep space station running to 2024, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is email@example.com.
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