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International Space Station gets new lease on life

US official urges other countries to commit to operating the ISS until at least 2024, invites participation in manned mission to an asteroid.

The operation of the International Space Station will be extended to 2024, four years beyond the US’s previous commitment, the Obama administration announced. Presidential science adviser John Holdren told an international conference on space exploration at the State Department on 9 January that the decision followed “a rigorous review of safety aspects and expected benefits” of extending operations. He said that the timing of the announcement was meant to allow ISS partner nations plenty of time to determine whether to continue the partnership.

“Such a decision would instill in the scientific community confidence that this singular platform will be available for innovative, long-term research that the community has wanted to conduct but has been hesitant to reach for,” Holdren said.

“The Station remains the leading space platform for global research and development. The Station is the foundation for future human exploration to an asteroid, the Moon, and ultimately Mars,” Nicholas Burns, deputy secretary of state, told the conference, which was attended by representatives from more than 30 nations. A communiqué from the meeting (known as the first International Space Exploration Forum) said the ISS showed “that nations can collaboratively design, fund, and complete an expansive and complex project.”

The ISS is “an amazingly flexible laboratory and invaluable technology test bed for a range of potential solutions to the challenged of human space exploration,” Holdren said. NASA has estimated that space-based research will be needed to mitigate 21 of the 32 most significant health risks identified as barriers to long-duration exploration missions, he noted. For example, fluid and air revitalization systems can require microgravity testing to reveal defects that may not be noticeable when testing occurs in ground-based labs.

Holdren said that research conducted aboard ISS also has “produced promising leads for the development of new vaccines for salmonella and antibiotic-resistant bacteria; new technologies for microencapsulation of cancer drugs that can improve the targeting of tumor cells while sparing healthy tissues; novel robotic surgical techniques that may allow the removal of tumors previously thought to be inoperable; and water treatment that is already delivering drinking water to economically struggling countries ravaged by natural disasters.”

Holdren also touted the Obama administration’s proposal for a manned mission to a nearby asteroid as “equally promising and exciting,” noting that it would send astronauts “further than humans have ever gone.” The spacecraft would capture an asteroid and redirect it into a stable Earth orbit at the Lagrangian-2 equilibration point, where one or more manned visits would be sent to study it. The “unprecedented technological achievement,” Holdren said, “will significantly raise the bar of what humans can do in space and provide a practice platform for numerous technologies and activities that will have practical applications on Earth and will also be critical to the success of our plans for sending astronauts to Mars.” The administration has suggested that a manned Mars mission will occur sometime during the 2030s.

Holdren invited the conferring countries to participate in the asteroid mission; the project, he says, will use current and developing capabilities to detect both large asteroids that pose a hazard to Earth and smaller ones that would be candidates for capture. The mission also will accelerate development for new in-space propulsion technology and benefit from NASA’s development of new heavy-lift rocket and crew capsules.

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