NASA announced during a press conference today that agency administrator Charles Bolden and President Obama's senior science adviser John Holdren will publish a blog post this afternoon committing the United States to operating the International Space Station through 2024. (Update: The post is now up.)
Previously, the U.S. and its international partners had committed to run the station until 2020. But in the past few years, researchers have finally started to "hit their stride" with microgravity research, commercial launch companies have made significant headway, and plans for deep space exploration by humans have started to take shape, says associate administrator for NASA's human spaceflight William Gerstenmaier. A full 10 year extension, he says, "will change the way folks see their investment" in the station.
Gerstenmaier went on to explain that scientists, whose research can take two to three years to prepare for launch, will be more likely to sign up if they're not facing a 2020 de-orbit. NASA continues to work with companies on commercial crew vehicles whose main destination will be the station. And finally, if we ever want to send people to an asteroid, Mars, or elsewhere, we need to keep studying the effects of microgravity on the human body. As Gerstenmaier noted, recent studies about the way micro-g effects vision show that we still have a lot to learn. Additionally, the station helps engineers test hardware, particularly life-support systems, needed for future missions.
Sam Scimemi, director of NASA's International Space Station Program, said the agency tested space station hardware already in orbit and took inventory of spare parts on the ground before asking for an extension. The station will need $3 billion each year between 2021-2024 to operate; Scimemi noted that the funding originally slated for de-orbiting in 2020 would be re-assigned to the operations budget, but he didn't say whether that would cover it all.
Right now NASA's international partners -- the European Space Agency, the Japanese space agency JAXA, and the Russian space agency Roscosmos -- have not agreed to the extension, but NASA seems confident they'll jump on board soon, noting that it was the partners who originally lobbied hard for the 2020 extension before the U.S. agreed.