Stakeholders Meet to Ensure Longevity of Space Station

With assembly of the InternationalSpace Station nearing completion, the major investors — the United States,Russia, the European Space Agency (ESA), Japan and Canada — are discussing waysto ensure that neither the U.S. Vision for Space Exploration nor the ostensible15-year design life of some early station hardware forces an early retirementof the multibillion-dollar facility.

At a meeting of thestation partners here this week, a big topic was the engineering and financialmeasures that will need to be taken to keep the station operating until around2020 and perhaps beyond.

NASA officials in recentmonths have sought to reassure their partners that the end of operations of the U.S. space shuttle in 2010, and the increasing budget focus of NASA on lunarand Mars exploration, will not causethe United States to withdraw from the station and leave the partners with thecosts of operating the facility.

The station partnersbegan meeting here July 10-11 as part of what is known as a MultilateralCoordination Board, where agency officials with first-hand knowledge of thestation hash out issues. The heads of the participating agencies then arescheduled to meet at ESA headquarters here July 17 to discuss stationoperations, the transition to full-time station crews of six astronauts,compared to three at present, and the longevity of the facility.

Station partners spokehere July 10 as part of a symposium organized by the InternationalAstronautical Federation celebrating 10 years of station operations.

Alexey B. Krasnov, headof piloted programs at Russia's Roskosmos space agency, said the design life ofthe FGB Zarya module, the first element of the station, is 15 years. Zarya waslaunched in November 1998, which in theory would mean deorbiting it in 2013.

But Krasnov said hereJuly 10 that Russia's Mirspace station, which was operated in the 1980s and 1990s, was designed tofunction for five years and ended up lasting 15 years. Roskosmos has similarhopes for the Zarya module and its other hardware on the international spacestation, Krasnov said.

Krasnov noted that Russia intends to add electrical-supply and other hardware to the station beyond 2010 andis intent on using the facility for many years to come.

ESA and the JapanAerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), whose habitable station modules have onlybeen launched in recent months, have said they are focusing their fullattention on maximizing their use of the station.

"Some may say it istoo soon, but we want to start discussing the extension of the life of thestation," said Simonetta Di Pippo, head of human spaceflight programs atESA. "And as part of a general exploration strategy we need to see how toenlarge the number of potential partners" in future space station use.

NASA AdministratorMichael Griffin, in Paris in early June to discuss space policy, said he couldnot imagine the United States walking away from the station before some datebeyond 2016.

Yoshiyuki Hasegawa, JAXA'sISS program manager, said Japan's goal is to complete the installation of its Kibomodule, whose habitable laboratory element has just arrived at the station,and then to ensure "stable operations for some time to come."

Martin Zell, head ofresearch operations at ESA's directorate of human spaceflight, microgravity andexploration, gave a summary of each partner's research projects at the stationand said the U.S. research agenda is "a little light" because of U.S. policy favoring experiments tied to the Vision for Space Exploration.

But Jeff Bingham, senioradvisor to Republican staff of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science andTransportation Committee, said the U.S. Congress is intent on making sure thatNASA's moon and Mars programs do not force a premature drawdown of resourcesdevoted to the space station.

Bingham said the U.S.National Laboratory Initiative, which makes the U.S. segment of the spacestation — and those other segments allocated for U.S. use — a nationallaboratory, is one way of signaling congressional support for extending thestation's service life.

"Congress is sayingthat NASA should be preparing to use [the station] at least to 2020,"Bingham said. "It's an important statement: We have 20/20 vision when itcomes to the station. Some of you may have been hoping you would get back thatU.S.-allocated portion of your facilities because NASA doesn't want to use it.But we are intent on ensuring that this investment we have made is used to themaximum."

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Charles Q. Choi
Contributing Writer

Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for and Live Science. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica. Visit him at