NASA’s International Space Station team is eager to stick with the orbiting laboratory until 2030.
NASA officials speaking at a virtual meeting held on Tuesday (Jan. 18) spoke about plans to take advantage of an extension to the International Space Station program that NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced on Dec. 31. The meeting was held by the Human Exploration and Operations Committee of the NASA Advisory Council, a group of independent experts who monitor NASA’s activity relating to human spaceflight.
“We over Christmas got a Christmas present by having an announcement of our station extension,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations said during the meeting.
“This is when I wish I could get the stars exploding,” Lueders said, referencing the special effects that iPhones will apply to a text that reads “Happy New Year,” for example. “We’re very happy to have this extension through 2030, we have so many things we want to continue to do on the space station.”
The extension is particularly key as NASA hopes to get out of the business of operating space stations in low Earth orbit, instead sending its research and personnel to commercially operated stations.
But neither the agency nor businesses are quite ready to make that transition. The commercial sector isn’t close to having independent stations in orbit yet and NASA still has high demands for low Earth orbit, particularly to test technology it hopes to bring to more difficult destinations like the moon and Mars. Extending the International Space Station’s tenure to 2030 gives both sides of the U.S. equation more time to prepare.
While Lueders and other NASA officials have expressed their support for the extension, a few potential challenges remain. First, the U.S. alone cannot decide the fate of the International Space Station. Partners on the project — Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency — must also evaluate the situation and their priorities for themselves.
“Now each of our partners is working with their own government to officially commit to also extending through 2030, so everybody’s on their own timeline and their own budget cycles,” Robyn Gatens, NASA’s director of the International Space Station, said during the meeting.
The space station also faces the challenges of old age now that some components have endured a full two decades in orbit. Gatens offered an update on a persistent problem, an air leak in the Russian service module, Zvezda, that NASA and its Russian counterpart have been monitoring since 2019.
“The crew have identified and permanently sealed one crack in that module and knocked down the leak rate about half, so that’s good news, and the teams have been continuing to work to identify other areas of interest,” Gatens said. “We have enough gas onboard, there’s no immediate danger to the vehicle or to the crew, and worst-case scenario we can permanently close off this module.”
Another issue that will threaten the space station over its extended lifetime is orbital debris, or “space junk.” In particular, Gatens referenced debris created by a Russian anti-satellite test conducted in November, which forced seven astronauts into their capsules as a safety precaution during initial passes through the debris field.
“This debris will be in orbit for some time, for years, so what’s the lasting effect to the environment that the space station is flying in?” Gatens said. The anti-satellite test, she said, “has increased our background debris by about two times compared to prior to this event.”
Specifically, Gatens said that the previous risk of penetrating collision was 1 in every 50,000 orbits; now that number is between 1 in 33,000 orbits and 1 in 25,000 orbits. The space station makes about 60,000 orbits each year, she noted.
While the increase in space debris isn’t ideal, NASA is confident it can continue operating the station. “We know how to deal with this,” Gatens said.
Overall, Gatens said, the team is confident that the space station can last through the new extension. “We’ve done structural analysis and project no issues through at least 2030, we’ll continue to look at that,” Gatens said. The agency will soon complete the next chunk of a detailed analysis, this one due to cover 2028 through 2032, she added.
The extension announcement comes at a time when the limiting factor on what can be done aboard the orbiting laboratory is actually shipments up to the space station; typically, astronaut work schedules are a stronger limitation on NASA’s activities. “We’ve had enough crew time, it’s really been the up-mass that has been a constraint,” Gatens said. “I think some of this will settle out, but we’re keeping a close eye and this is actually a good problem.”
Gatens and Lueders highlighted some of the work planned to take place aboard the space station this year as well. NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei will set a new record for longest U.S. stay in orbit, the station will host its first fully private mission, astronauts will continue testing the toilet that will fly on crewed lunar missions, and more.
“We’re gonna squeeze every single ounce of value out of the International Space Station,” Lueders said.