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Space Station's Lifespan Extended to 2024

Jan 09, 2014 12:24 PM EST
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The Obama Administration has approved a 4-year extension on the International Space Station, ensuring the orbiting lab will stay open until 2024. 

"We are hopeful and optimistic that our ISS partners will join this extension effort and thus enable continuation of the groundbreaking research being conducted in this unique orbiting laboratory for at least another decade," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Assistant to the President for Science and Technology John Holdren wrote in a joint statement.

The space station, which costs NASA an average of $3 billion a year, was first launched in 1998 and has been home to crew members since 2000. Originally set to end 15 years later, the lab was spared when an agreement was reached to extend its life to 2020. At that point, the ISS was scheduled to meet a watery end, splashing down into the Pacific Ocean like its predecessor space station, Mir, operated by the Russians from 1986-2001.

This new extension is key to accomplishing a number of key goals, Bolden and Holdren said, including "necessary research activities" to help prepare for the agency's manned missions to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. According to the statement, NASA figures it can resolve 21 of the 32 human-health risks astronauts are likely to face on long-duration missions if given more time. It also gives researchers a bigger window for "testing the technologies and spacecraft systems necessary for humans to safely and productively operate in deep space," the officials wrote.

The list goes on, pointing to past discoveries related to the medical world, such as potential vaccines for Salmonella and antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, as evidence that more are sure to come. Also, by keeping the ISS open for business, NASA will have more time to transition the burden of ferrying cargo and crew to low-Earth orbit to the private sector - a necessary step if NASA is to shift its focus to deep-space exploration.

"If I'm going to go beyond low-Earth orbit, I have a lot of work that I still need to do," William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told The New York Times. "I need to understand how the human performs in spaceflight. How can I make sure I have a pump system for a three-year or two-year trip to Mars and back?"

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