ISS partners show interest in station extension

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BREMEN, Germany — NASA’s partners in the International Space Station are showing a growing interest in extending the station’s operations beyond 2024 regardless of NASA initiatives to end direct funding of the station around that time.

During an Oct. 1 press conference at the 69th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here, representatives of three ISS partner agencies said they were open to extending the station’s operations to 2028 or 2030 in order to maximize the investment they’ve made in the facility as a platform for research and preparation for exploration activities beyond Earth orbit.

Jan Woerner, director general of the European Space Agency, said the issue could come up at the next triennial meeting of the ministers of ESA’s member nations, scheduled for late 2019. “At the ministerial meeting next year, the ministerial council, I will propose to go on with ISS as well as the lunar Gateway,” he said. “I believe that we will go on.”

At a separate briefing Oct. 2, Woerner emphasized the use of the station as a research platform and encouraged greater commercial activities there. “I believe we should use the ISS as long as feasible,” he said. “I always thought 2024 was the end, but now I learned it is 2028, and yesterday I learned it’s 2030. So, I will try to convince the ESA member states that ESA should be a partner in the future.” However, he noted that ESA could defer the decision on a post-2024 ISS extension until its following ministerial meeting in 2022.

Hiroshi Yamakawa, president of the Japanese space agency JAXA, also emphasized the importance of making the most of the station. “I’d like to make the most of the present ISS,” he said. “We have to maximize the output of the ISS. Whenever the deadline comes to the ISS, we would like to participate in the ISS and maximize output.”

He added, though, that there was not a pressing need for Japan to decide on an ISS extension. “JAXA is requesting budgets annually, so I think in that sense JAXA is quite flexible.”

Dmitry Loskutov, head of international relations at the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, said Russia already expected an extension. “We anticipate the continued functioning until 2028 or 2030,” he said.

That extension, he said, would be a subject of upcoming discussions between Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine when they meet at the Baikonur Cosmodrome around the Oct. 11 launch of a Soyuz spacecraft to the station. It will also come up at a conference in Moscow in November marking the 20th anniversary of the launch of the first ISS segment, Zarya, attended by the ISS partners.

Evgeny Mikrin, general designer at RSC Energia, also endorsed an ISS extension. “I think we really should continue ISS utilization up until 2030” to maximize its utilization, he said, speaking through an interpreter during an IAC panel discussion Oct. 1. He stated that Russia still planned to launch three modules to its segment of the ISS in the coming years to expand its capabilities.

Bridenstine, at the heads-of-agencies press conference Oct. 1, alluded to legislation introduced in both the House and Senate that contain provisions to authorize an extension of the ISS until 2030. That language stems from congressional criticism to plans by NASA in its 2019 budget proposal to end direct ISS funding in 2025 as part of an initiative to enhance commercialization of low Earth orbit.

“The vision that we have for low Earth orbit in general is a vision for commercialization,” Bridenstine said, with the private sector eventually taking over operations of space stations or similar facilities in LEO and with NASA as one of potentially many customers.

“The president’s budget request was very clear that we would end direct funding for the ISS in 2025. To be clear, that doesn’t mean the ISS will be over,” he said, citing as one option an international consortium of companies taking over the station. “But it is also true that while I do support the commercialization of low Earth orbit, Congress doesn’t always agree with me and Congress doesn’t always agree with the president, so what gets put into law could be very different from what our objectives are.”