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Orbital Science's VP: fly the International Space Station through 2050

The International Space Station.
The International Space Station.

Last week, it was announced that NASA, via approval from Congress and the President, was going to be flying the International Space Station (ISS) through calendar year 2024, a 4-year mission extension that would take the ISS 9 years past its original mission, which was slated to only run through 2015. Now, some are pushing for another extension: this one all the way to 2050!

In an interview with Universe Today, Frank Culbertson, former NASA shuttle commander and now vice president at Orbital Sciences, said that “in my opinion, if it were up to me, we would fly it [the station] to 2050!”

Culbertson then added that it would take the consent of Congress to do that.

Speaking further, Culbertson added that “there is really no reason to stop operations on the space station until it is completely no longer usable. And I think it will be usable for a very long time because it is very built and very well maintained.” Culbertson then added that the Station has only recently been completed and is only now starting to fulfill its designed potential.

So, how about flying through 2050? Well, that could be a bit over-ambitious.

While the decision to fly the ISS through 2050 instead of 2024 sounds like a good idea, it was not one without its problems, chiefly among them: that the ISS was originally intended to fly only through 2015! The issue here: can the ISS, whose first components were launched way back in 1998, even stand up to the physical/structural rigors of an extended mission?

That's the problem that engineers spent the past several years analyzing, eventually concluding that the ISS has a lot more life in it than the initial mission proposal gave it credit for. To that end, the mission has already been extended twice in the past, first from 2015 to 2020 and, as of a few days ago, to 2024.

For many, it would be a shame to see the station be decommissioned while it still life in it, especially considering the fact that the ISS's construction was 10 years behind schedule. Originally, the ISS was set to be finished in 2003, but that was delayed because of the space shuttle Columbia disaster early in the same year. The shuttles would be grounded until July, 2005. While it was an undeniable fact that the shuttles were getting old, it was also true that they are the only space vehicles large enough to carry the large components of the ISS into orbit. The problem was obvious: no shuttle flights, no major construction. With the completion delayed all those years, the ISS, if it served out its intended lifespan to 2015, will only have a couple years in orbit as a completed station, not the 12 originally intended.

A lot of money-conscious politicians all over the world didn't like this idea, either, which has been a driving factor (along with the science) for the mission extensions. For the record, there's official talk in NASA of yet another extension, this one taking the ISS into 2028. So, if the ISS flies through 2028, what's another 22 years, right?

Stay tuned!

For more info:
Universe Today

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