TORONTO — The heads of three space agencies said Sept. 29 that their governments may not make decisions until 2016 on whether to continue to participate in the international space station beyond 2020, although NASA remains optimistic that they will eventually approve such an extension.
In a “Heads of Agencies” panel session that kicked off the 65th International Astronautical Congress here, and a press conference that followed, the leaders of the Canadian Space Agency, European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said they had near-term priorities to address first, including maximizing the current use of the ISS, before considering the extension proposed by the United States this year.
“In Japan, the government hasn’t decided to join in this program after 2020,” Naoki Okumura, president of JAXA, said when asked about the government’s support for an extension during the panel session. He said discussion would continue within the government until a 2016 meeting of the ISS partners in Japan.
One factor in that decision, he suggested, was finding ways to reduce costs of running the station’s Kibo laboratory module. “We have to tackle that,” he said.
At a press conference after the panel, Okamura’s Canadian and European counterparts also said they were not planning an immediate decision on an extension to at least 2024. ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain said his “number one” priority regarding ISS at the agency’s ministerial meeting in December is funding Europe’s contribution to the ISS to 2020.
“We are preparing some principal decisions for what’s next after 2020, but there will not be any funding commitment,” he added. “The member states will be invited to give their views on what’s after 2020.”
“Our focus is to maximize the use of the international space station,” said Walter Natynczyk, president of the Canadian Space Agency. “And then we will have a look at the entire value proposition when we put a case [for an extension] before the government of Canada.”
In January, the White House and NASA announced that the United States would seek an extension of ISS operations from 2020 to at least 2024. Agency officials have indicated that, from a technical standpoint, the ISS could continue operating to 2028.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who was also present at the panel session and press conference, did not comment on the statements by his counterparts. In a speech at a Federal Aviation Administration commercial space transportation conference in February, William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said he expected the international partners would take “several years” to decide on the proposed extension, but would eventually approve it.
“It’s something that is extremely likely to happen,” Kathy Laurini of NASA headquarters said in a presentation here Sept. 30, referring to an ISS extension beyond 2020. “We no longer see a very cautious forward look but instead a more optimistic look among the partner agencies.”
Laurini reconciled that view with the earlier statements made by agency heads by noting that agencies are in discussions with their governments on how to extend their participation on the ISS. “There needs to be more work to lower the costs and increase the benefits” for the partner nations, she said. “They understand the task ahead and I think they all see this as a ‘doable do.’”
Geopolitical tensions this year involving Russia, while not affecting near-term ISS operations, have cast a shadow on the station’s long-term future. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said earlier this year that Russia would end its participation in the ISS in 2020, although since then Roscosmos officials have indicated they are considering plans for an extension beyond 2020.
Denis Lyskov, deputy head of Roscosmos, was scheduled to appear on the panel at the conference. However, he was one of a number of Russian and Chinese delegates who were unable to attend because of visa problems.
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