Operations aboard the international space station (ISS), with full crew complement of six astronauts, have just begun in earnest, and the facility’s retirement should be extended beyond the old, tentative and now meaningless decommission period.

This problem of racing against obsolescence has dogged the development and servicing of advanced complex systems throughout history.

Compounded by policy reiterations of international partners, and hampered by servicing and technology limitations, schedules have slipped, time and again. Perhaps this is one of the penalties of trailblazing in uncharted international territory. Indeed, in the time ISS was designed, built and put into orbit, some of the core technologies and hardware have been superceded — some even finding their way into common consumer products. I agree with Sally Ride, the former astronaut and member of the Augustine Committee, that the shuttle is a versatile vehicle and that similar capability in both cargo volume and crew ferry are needed to service ISS optimally.

What stood out most in Ride’s NASA budget charts Aug. 13 is the “giant blue slug,” as fellow Augustine Committee member Edward Crawley aptly referred to it, that is ISS. In every alternate scenario the committee presented, the ISS consumes enough to prevent NASA from being able to initiate any other project.

Though much more complex, and perhaps more quirky to operate than the standard expendable launchers of today, the ability to haul both large number of crew and oversized cargo simultaneously makes the shuttle a Rolls Royce of Earth-to-orbit access vehicles. As Rand Simberg points out in his July 17 article in the New Atlantis, the shuttle has never failed her crew. However, we cannot say that about the other major components that make up the STS launch stack.

The orbiter airframe has much life left in it, and as long as we can safely manage and evolve the solid-rocket boosters — which we have since the Challenger accident — and fix the external tank foam spalling problem — which seems to be evading us even after the loss of Columbia — the shuttle system, with proper maintenance, retrofits and evolutionary upgrades, might service ISS for several more years.

For those who think that new, economically feasible, reusable, trans-atmospheric vehicles may be built from the ground up, starting from a clean slate, the system architecture heuristic to recall is that “in the case of complex systems, evolution, much less revolution.”

Take the case of personal computers. Some argue that the pocket PCs of today are so cheap and super efficient compared to their warehouse-sized predecessors. But looks can be deceiving, because when you take a peek under the hood, you see that the codes running on today’s PCs have much in common with those older generation systems.

So, until we have evolved such a system, or systems are fully commissioned internationally or commercially, to replace the versatile shuttle, it is prudent to operate it along with the Russian Soyuz and Progress crew and cargo delivery vehicles.

In this way, if the shuttle incurs delays or another stand-down for unseen reasons, ISS will still have the needed access, though limited, to fall back on. However, it may be prudent to have a domestic secondary option, rather than depend on international partners.

The so-called gap between proposed shuttle retirement and commission of a replacement is not viable because without reliable primary and secondary transport and logistic support vehicles, ISS operations will have to be severely curtailed, perhaps even mothballed.

So, the idea that we can somehow terminate shuttle operations before a comparable system comes on line is flawed from the start. The proper way to phase out STS operations is to slowly ramp down service while the next generation of vehicles take up the slack and eventually enter full commission.

Now, a most poignant exchange between Augustine Committee members and NASA’s ISS manager reveals that NASA’s current budget, including stimulus funds, will still not allow us to keep the shuttle flying, the ISS operations rolling, and simultaneously provide enough resources for building the systems in the Constellation program for returning people to the Moon.

Crawley points to the direct impact of this zero sum situation by suggesting that the Constellation program will have to be delayed until the ISS is decommissioned.

Absent a large spike in NASA’s budget, which is unlikely in the current economic climate, are there other options to explore? In a recent speech, NASA’s new administrator, Charles Bolden, told agency employees that NASA must get back into basic and applied research.

The Augustine Committee should ponder ways to transition authority and budgets for all operational systems away from NASA. Once the assembly is complete, hopefully by Christmas of 2010, could the ISS be handed over to be managed and maintained by a consortium made of ISS partners, independent of NASA?

Can existing intergovernmental agreements and memoranda of understanding among partners be modified to this end? Is it possible to imagine a smooth transition of ISS operations assets and personnel from NASA to this new entity? Such an entity’s structure and management, modeled along existing international organiz tions, might also make it easier to extend ISS collaboration to more international partners, especially China and India, with their vigorous economies and emerging manned spaceflight capability. Brazil and Mexico, the Middle Eastern Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and others would follow suit.

If such a shift is possible, then the consortium could support ISS operations on an entirely separate budget, cobbled together by their respective governments, along the lines of a National Laboratory —which it is — with an innovative international component to it, while NASA focuses on executing the Constellation program for a quick return to the Moon.

The Augustine Committee clearly drove home the philosophy that the ultimate, overarching goal of human spaceflight is not just about national security, international leadership, prestige or economic benefits, but the ever-slow but steady buildup of projects and infrastructure, aimed toward the settlement of humanity among the stars. The ISS is a critical element in this logical, progressive evolution of architectures needed to attain that goal. Human spaceflight is the raison d’etre and the core competency of NASA, and appropriately, more than half of NASA’s annual budget is allocated for it.

Exploring the unknown is an innate human imperative. It should not be construed an economic endeavor. Equating manned spaceflight to the robotic exploration of space is a flawed economic argument. The price and reward of human space activity are both high, though not all the benefits are immediately apparent or tangible.

There are critical, base funding levels in all programs, below which they cannot function. If inadequate funding hampers the progress of human spaceflight projects at NASA, faced with a stagnant, fixed or declining budget, the agency will have no other choice but to abandon it or put all other programs on the back burner, delay their schedules or find other homes for them.

The ISS truly represents the culmination of perhaps the most complex building project ever undertaken by humanity, opening new doors not only in human space activity and peaceful uses of outer space, but also extending new opportunities in diverse arenas of international cooperation and collaboration.

As the facility orbits planet Earth every 90 minutes, sleekly gliding over countries without check points and visas, carrying a multinational crew, it reminds us of the unity of our fragile planet and peoples. It offers hope for a richer, freer and ever more vibrant world of nations, working together, aspiring ever higher.

The ISS could still be that unique symbol, a magical gift to the whole world in this new century, and does not have to end up an albatross around NASA’s neck.

Madhu Thangavelu conducts the Graduate Space Concepts Studio at the University of Southern California. He is co-author of “The Moon: Resources, Future Development and Settlement, second edition,” published by Springer/Praxis in 2008.