Editorial: Keep an Eye on the Space Station

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With U.S. President Barack Obama having recently affirmed — pending congressional approval — U.S. support for the international space station through 2020, there is already talk of further extending operations of the orbital outpost. The heads of the space station partner agencies, in a statement March 11 at the close of a meeting in Tokyo, said they had begun reviewing the facility’s on-board hardware with an eye toward certifying it for use through 2028.

What this would entail, and at what cost, remains to be seen, but it is a clear indication that now that the station is finally assembled in orbit, there is a desire to use it. Money is, of course, an issue: In the statement, the partners also said they would look for ways to decrease the annual cost of space station operations. Several ideas have been suggested, including better systems for converting wastewater to potable water, which would reduce the facility’s resupply needs.

Whether it is feasible, advisable or even desirable to continue operating the space station to its 30th birthday — the first major module was launched in 1998 — is impossible to say. But that’s beside the point. The point is that the topic is now on the table for discussion, if only informally.

This is a good thing, especially in light of recent history. NASA’s human spaceflight program is mired in controversy over the president’s proposal to scrap the previous administration’s plan to return to the Moon using hardware derived in part from the space shuttle. The logic for scrapping a Constellation program after investing five years and $9 billion is that it is unaffordable given NASA’s other obligations, the space station being prominently among them.

Amazingly, a tacit assumption in recent years that helped Constellation fit into NASA’s overall projected budgets over the next decade or so was that the space station would simply go away in 2015. As recently as early this year, the station’s non-U.S. partners — Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia — were uncertain of U.S. plans.

The Obama administration was absolutely correct to budget for the space station through 2020, and Congress should follow suit. But this should have happened much sooner. The question of whether to extend station operations still further, and the cost and other implications of doing so, must not be allowed to fade from discussion in the coming years. If that happens, the issue will only force its way to the surface, inevitably at an inopportune time.