The International Space Station may get a new lease on life.
The orbiting complex is currently expected to end operations in 2024, but a group from the U.S. Senate's Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee proposes continuing the program until 2030 — a full six years later — in a new NASA 2019 authorization act.
"By extending the ISS through 2030, this legislation will help grow our already burgeoning space economy, fortifying the United States' leadership in space, increasing American competitiveness around the world, and creating more jobs and opportunity here at home," said U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation and Space, in the joint statement.
One probable motivation for this extension would be the space station's growing in-space manufacturing capability, given some of the language in the authorization act. "The [NASA] administrator shall establish a low-Earth orbit commercialization program to encourage the fullest commercial use and development of space by private entities in the United States," it states in one of its sections. The act further asks NASA to "maintain a national microgravity laboratory in space" even after the space station is decommissioned.
The other senatorial signatories include subcommittee ranking member Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.; Roger Wicker, R-Miss.; and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chair and ranking member of the larger science committee. SpaceNews points out that the 2030 extension proposal was also included in last year's Space Frontier Act, which the Senate passed unanimously but which the House did not pass.
Since the ISS is an international project, its extension will likely depend on the commitment of the other partners in the laboratory. The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are the partners that currently provide the most funding. Each agency must also determine budget priorities in the wake of NASA's push to land humans on the moon in 2024, a program for which it is also seeking international participation.
The senators also want NASA to have the Exploration Upper Stage of the Space Launch System rocket ready for the 2024 moon landing. The powerful upper stage can carry more equipment to the lunar surface to support ongoing astronaut operations.
The authorization act asks for "scheduled availability sufficient for use on the third launch of the Space Launch System," which (while not stated explicitly in the text) is set for 2024 and would be the scheduled first moon landing by humans since 1972. NASA, in a recent statement about Boeing production of the Space Launch System, said it expected to have the stage ready for the fourth SLS mission in 2025.
The act also directs NASA to continue developing the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). NASA requested that this project be canceled in its fiscal year 2020 budget request in order to support budget overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope, a flagship project expected to launch in 2021. Congress has previously intervened in similar requests.
The senators' bill also orders NASA to launch an infrared asteroid-hunting space telescope to operate in space by 2025. NASA already announced its intention to do so in September, with an instrument based on the previously proposed mission.
The act would also require NASA to develop a plan by the end of 2021 to test a new type of propulsion — nuclear thermal propulsion — in flight in 2024. This technology has the potential to cut travel times across the solar system, which is relevant for NASA's hopes to land humans on Mars in 2033 or 2035.
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