WASHINGTON — When the White House announced it was throwing its weight behind a four-year extension of the international space station’s mission to 2024, it prompted an outpouring of support from the space community, including from former NASA officials once told the agency could not afford to operate the outpost past 2016.

“I completely support the extension to 2024,” former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin wrote in a Jan. 10 email to SpaceNews. “I believe that in the near future the commitment to ISS should be indefinite; it should be kept operational as long as it is possible to do so. Properly supported, ISS could function for decades, and should.”

The White House Office of Management and Budget was sending a different signal toward the end of Griffin’s four years as NASA administrator. President George W. Bush’s final budget proposal, sent to Congress in 2008, showed NASA’s space station commitment ending in 2016 — a budget posture consistent with the Bush administration’s plan to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 without significantly boosting NASA’s budget. 

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009 calling for a review of the Constellation human lunar exploration program, experts testified that NASA likely could not afford to build the Ares family of rockets, Orion crew capsule and lunar lander without deorbiting the space station around the middle of the decade to free up funds. 

Obama canceled Constellation in 2010 but Congress saved Orion and ordered NASA to use Ares and space shuttle hardware and designs to build the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket the agency is working on now for future deep-space missions. These programs remain in NASA’s budget, competing for funding with the $3 billion-a-year international space station, and the Commercial Crew Program that aims to send astronauts to the orbital outpost by late 2017 using privately designed spacecraft.

Meanwhile, aside from Russia, no international partners have yet committed to a space station mission through 2024. The United States and Russia say they can operate the station alone through 2024, but that they would rather not.

The European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), both of which have made investments in space station modules and supplied the outpost with cargo, are still figuring out how they will support the outpost through 2020. Only after that puzzle is solved will those agencies contemplate participation through 2024, senior officials said.

JAXA has arranged its barter agreement with NASA only through 2015. Japan will supply the space station with cargo using its H-2 Transfer Vehicle.

“However, any time beyond that, until 2020, we are still in negotiations with the United States as to what kind of barter agreement we are going to conclude,” JAXA President Naoki Okumura said in a Jan. 10 press conference here following a meeting of the International Academy of Astronautics. “That discussion is going on and we would like to reach that decision as soon as we can.”

The European Space Agency is in a similar spot.

At the same Jan. 10 press conference, Thomas Reiter, director of ESA’s Human Spaceflight and Operations Directorate, said European leaders would determine how to support their commitment to the space station through 2020 at a December ministerial conference. 

“I think I don’t need to stress that in this current economic condition, this is not an easy task,” Reiter, a German astronaut who has lived aboard ISS and Russia’s Mir space station, told reporters. “Having said that, it’s clear that ESA made a huge investment in the international space station. And I’m sure in the discussions that are ahead of us, this will be considered.”

Whatever else happens to the space station, there probably will not be any additional international partners coming aboard to support the project financially or operationally.

The partnership “is a treaty,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a Jan. 10 press conference following a meeting here of the International Academy of Astronautics. 

“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 told the press.

Bolden, a former astronaut who commanded his final shuttle mission in 1994, said he was not around when the international space station partnership was formed, “but I am told it was painful.”

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White House Lobbies Station Partners To Join in Extended Mission

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...