Extend ISS to 2050 as Stepping Stone to Future Deep Space Voyages – Orbital VP/Astronaut tells Universe Today

by Ken Kremer on January 16, 2014

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The International Space Station as seen from the crew of STS-119. Credit: NASA

The International Space Station could potentially function far beyond its new extension to 2024. Perhaps out to 2050. The ISS as seen from the crew of STS-119. Credit: NASA
Story updated

WALLOPS ISLAND, VA – Just days ago, the Obama Administration approved NASA’s request to extend the lifetime of the International Space Station (ISS) to at least 2024. Ultimately this will serve as a stepping stone to exciting deep space voyages in future decades.

“I think this is a tremendous announcement for us here in the space station world,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, at a press briefing on Jan. 8.

But there’s really “no reason to stop it there”, said Frank Culbertson, VP at Orbital Sciences and former NASA astronaut and shuttle commander, to Universe Today when I asked him for his response to NASA’s station extension announcement.

“It’s fantastic!” Culbertson told me, shortly after we witnessed the picture perfect blastoff of Orbital’s Antares/Cygnus rocket on Jan. 9 from NASA’s Wallops launch facility in Virginia, bound for the ISS.

“In my opinion, if it were up to me, we would fly it [the station] to 2050!” Culbertson added with a smile. “Of course, Congress would have to agree to that.”

Gerstenmaier emphasized that the extension will allow both the research and business communities to plan for the longer term and future utilization, be innovative and realize a much greater return on their investments in scientific research and capital outlays.

“The station is really our stepping stone,” Robert Lightfoot, NASA Associate Administrator, told me at Wallops following Antares launch.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) – which is searching for elusive dark matter – was one of the key science experiments that Gerstenmaier cited as benefitting greatly from the ISS extension to 2024. The AMS is the largest research instrument on the ISS.

ISS Astronauts grapple Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft with robotic arm and guide it to docking port. Credit: NASA TV

ISS Astronauts grapple Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft with robotic arm and guide it to docking port on Jan. 12, 2014. Credit: NASA TV

The extension will enable NASA, the academic community and commercial industry to plan much farther in the future and consider ideas not even possible if the station was de-orbited in 2020 according to the existing timetable.

Both the Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo freighter are private space vehicles developed and built by Orbital Sciences with seed money from NASA in a public-private partnership to keep the station stocked with essential supplies and research experiments and to foster commercial spaceflight.

So I asked Culbertson and Lightfoot to elaborate on the benefits of the ISS extension to NASA, scientific researchers and commercial company’s like Orbital Sciences.

“First I think it’s fantastic that the Administration has committed to extending the station, said Culbertson. “They have to work with the ISS partners and there is a lot to be done yet. It’s a move in the right direction.”

“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.”

“If it were up to me, we would fly it to 2050!”

“NASA and the engineers understand the station very well. I think they are operating it superbly.”

Birds take flight as Antares lifts off for Space Station from Virginia Blastoff of Antares commercial rocket built by Orbital Sciences on Jan. 9, 2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA on a mission for NASA bound for the International Space Station and loaded with science experiments. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer

Birds take flight as Antares lifts off for Space Station from Virginia Blastoff of Antares commercial rocket built by Orbital Sciences on Jan. 9, 2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA on a mission for NASA bound for the International Space Station and loaded with science experiments.
Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer

“The best thing about the station is it’s now a research center. And it is really starting to ramp up. It’s not there yet. But it is now finished [the assembly] as a station and a laboratory.”

“The research capability is just starting to move in the right direction.”

The Cygnus Orbital 1 cargo vehicle launched on Jan. 9 was loaded with approximately 2,780 pounds/1,261 kilograms of cargo for the ISS crew for NASA including vital science experiments, computer supplies, spacewalk tools, food, water, clothing and experimental hardware.

The research investigations alone accounted for over 1/3 of the total cargo mass. It included a batch of 23 student designed experiments representing over 8700 students sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE).

“So extending it [ISS] gives not only commercial companies but also researchers the idea that ‘Yes I can do long term research on the station because it will be there for another 10 years. And I can get some significant data.”

“I think that’s really important for them [the researchers] to understand, that it will be backed for that long time and that they won’t be cut off short in the middle of preparing an experiment or flying it.”

Robert Lightfoot; NASA Associate Administrator, and Frank Culbertson; executive vice president and general manager of Orbital's advanced spaceflight programs group and former Space Shuttle commander, at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA discuss extension of the International Space Station lifetime following Jan. 9 Antares/Cygnus blastoff bound for the station loaded with science experiments.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Robert Lightfoot; NASA Associate Administrator, and Frank Culbertson; executive vice president and general manager of Orbital’s advanced spaceflight programs group and former Space Shuttle commander, at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA discuss extension of the International Space Station lifetime following Jan. 9 Antares/Cygnus blastoff bound for the station loaded with science experiments. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“So I think that first of all it demonstrates the commitment of the government to continue with NASA. But also it presents a number of opportunities for a number of people.”

What does the ISS extension mean for Orbital?

The purpose for NASA and Orbital Sciences in building Antares and Cygnus was to restore America’s ability to launch cargo to the ISS – following the shutdown of NASA’s space shuttles – by using commercial companies and their business know how to thereby significantly reduce the cost of launching cargo to low Earth orbit.

“As far as what it [the ISS extension] means for Orbital and other commercial companies – Yes, it does allow us to plan long term for what we might be able to do in providing a service for NASA in the future,” Culbertson replied.

“It also gives us the chance to be innovative and maybe invest in some improvements in how we can do this [cargo service] – to make it more cost effective, more efficient, turnaround time quicker, go more often, go a lot more often!”

“So it allows us the chance to think long term and make sure we can get a return on our investment.”

What does the ISS extension mean for NASA?

“The station is really our stepping stone,” Robert Lightfoot, NASA Associate Administrator, told Universe Today. “If you use that analogy of stepping stones and the next stone. We need to use this stone to know what the next stone looks like. So we can get ready. Whether that’s research or whether that things about the human body. You don’t want to jump off that platform before you are ready.”

“We are learning every day how to live and operate in space. Fortunately on the ISS we are close to home. So if something comes up we can get [the astronauts] home.”

The ISS extension is also the pathway to future exciting journey’s beyond Earth and into deep space, Culbertson and Lightfoot told Universe Today.

“It actually also presents a business opportunity that can be expanded not just to the station but to other uses in spaceflight, such as exploration to Asteroids, Mars and wherever we are going,” said Culbertson.

And we hope it will extend to other civilian uses in space also. Maybe other stations in space will follow this one and we’ll be able to participate in that.”

Lightfoot described the benefits for astronaut crews.

“The further out we go, the more we need to know about how to operate in space, what kind of protection we need, what kind of research we need for the astronauts,” said Lightfoot.

“Orbital is putting systems up there that allow us to test more and more. Get more time. Because when we get further away, we can’t get home as quick. So those are the kinds of things we can do.

“So with this extension I can make those investments as an Agency. And not just us, but also our academic research partners, our industry partners, and the launch market too is part of this.”

He emphasized the benefits for students, like those who flew experiments on Cygnus, and how that would inspire the next generation of explorers!

“You saw the excitement we had today with the students at the viewing area. For example with those little cubesats, 4 inches by 4 inches, that they worked on, and got launched today!”

“That’s pretty cool! And that’s exactly what we need to be doing!

Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops Science experiments from these students representing six schools across  America were selected to fly aboard the Cygnus spacecraft which launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on Jan . 9, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP).  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com

Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops
These are among the students benefiting from ISS extension
Science experiments from these students representing six schools across America were selected to fly aboard the Cygnus spacecraft which launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on Jan . 9, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“So eventually they can take our jobs. And as long as they know that station will be there for awhile, the extension gives them the chance to get the training and learning and do the research we need to take people further out in space.”

“The station is the stepping stone.”

“And it really is important to have this station extension,” Lightfoot explained to me.

The Jan. 9 launch of the Orbital-1 mission is the first of eight operational Antares/Cygnus flights to the space station scheduled through 2016 by Orbital Sciences under its $1.9 Billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg of cargo to orbit.

Orbital Sciences and SpaceX – NASA’s other cargo provider – will compete for follow on ISS cargo delivery contracts.

The next Antares/Cygnus flight is slated for about May 1 from NASA Wallops.

In an upcoming story, I’ll describe Orbital Sciences’ plans to upgrade both Antares and Cygnus to meet the challenges of the ISS today and tomorrow.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars and more news.

Ken Kremer

This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9 and docked on Jan. 12   Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by  Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo.  Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9 and docked on Jan. 12 Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo. Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Frank Culbertson; executive vice president and general manager of Orbital's advanced spaceflight programs group and former Space Shuttle commander, and Ken Kremer; Universe Today, at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA, discuss extension of the International Space Station lifetime following Jan. 9 Antares/Cygnus blastoff.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Frank Culbertson; executive vice president and general manager of Orbital’s advanced spaceflight programs group and former Space Shuttle commander, and Ken Kremer; Universe Today, at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA, discuss extension of the International Space Station lifetime following Jan. 9 Antares/Cygnus blastoff. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

About 

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, scientist, freelance science journalist (Princeton, NJ) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calanders including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral and NASA Wallops on over 40 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com

TerryG January 17, 2014 at 2:17 AM

Extending the ISS lifetime to 2050, with approval of the ISS partners, isn’t necessarily advantageous for Orbital Sciences Corp.

Orbital have only 23 or so modified NK33 engines – re-badged and slightly modified in the US as the Aerojet A26 – for use with the Antares LV.

As Antares isn’t on a path to become a re-usable LV and NK33′s are out of production, Antares in it’s current form is no more than 11 flights away from being retired.

Orbital are pursuing a $1.5B antitrust lawsuit against UAL to try and free up 20 RD-180 engines for use after mid-2016 but, the outcome is far from certain.

http://www.bizjournals.com/denver/news/2013/06/26/ula-faces-15-billion-anti-trust.html

If judgement goes against Orbital and they drop out of Commercial Re-Supply, then the strategies of manufacturing your own rocket engines and moving toward re-usable LVs – as pursued by SpaceX – will become a lesson for Orbital.

Ken Kremer January 22, 2014 at 11:53 PM

I have asked Orbital specifically all these questions and many more. future story

Kapitalist January 17, 2014 at 5:56 AM

What a horrible vision, to “prepare” for a Mars trip until 2050, to land there in the 2060s then! We should instead start going to Mars today! The ISS is a lousy preparation for manned deep space since it is in microgravity. A Mars mission must necessarily use artificial centrifugal gravity for health and cost reasons. Life support and other systems in the ISS must be redesigned from scratch, they are now most expensively specialized for microgravity.

A new spacestation similar to a real Mars spacecraft should be sent to LEO with 0.38G, closed loop life support and a crew of 4 for 6 months with all supply from the start. There they should simulate autonomy from Earth with delayed communication and no supplies unless emergency. That would be a stepping stone to deep space travel! The ISS has nothing to do with space travel, it never goes anywhere, but it has already cost more than what a manned mission to Mars would’ve cost! No NASA astronaut has been beyond 1/10 of an Earth radius over ground for over 40 years now. Time to move on.

Dav_Daddy January 17, 2014 at 6:57 AM

Agreed. I think you go too far though in wanting to put a whole new platform up. I would be fine with the money we have/will spend on ISS if the damnable thing wasn’t so dependent on Earth for supplies.

They need to take a hard long look at what can be done to make that sucker more self sufficient. Ideally we’d move it to a higher orbit as well but even in its current orbit the only regular assistance it should require from Earth would be fuel to boost its orbit, and crew changes. (I think there is greater value in getting more people time in space than having a few s log long stretches.) Plus that should allow for current and future experiments to proceed with minimum disruptions.

I’ve toyed with the idea of starting a petition on whitehouse.gov to that affect. Right now I’d be happy with a study of the feasibility of doing this. Anyone feeling ambitious I won’t hold it against you if you wanna take the ball and run with this petition idea, you’ll have my signature.

Torbjörn Larsson January 17, 2014 at 7:03 AM

Certainly a dedicated project would speed up Mars missions, but that isn’t going to happen for budget reasons. Which is why a prolonged ISS life is a fallback option. However, I don’t see a notion in the article that Mars missions would be pushed back to 2050.

As for ISS suitability as a preparation site, it seems good.

- No current Mars mission concept is entertaining the idea of artificial “centrifugal” gravity, probably exactly because of cost reasons (and to cut development time). This is why the upcoming yearlong ISS habitation of US astronauts, including a twin with an Earth control, is said to be exciting and essential preparations for a future Mars mission.

- And the NASA deep space concepts seems all centered around the notion to use standard ISS modules, with known micro-asteroid protection and life support capabilities, as living spaces in both crafts and putative way stations. Look them up.

Kapitalist January 17, 2014 at 7:32 AM

“Preparing” for deep space until 2050 implies a delay. Bush1, Bush2 and Obama proposed going to Mars, Moon and an asteroid. It has all been canceled because NASA wanted to do something else “to prepare”. Like now proposing to tow that ridiculous meteoroid to Moon orbit instead of sending a manned mission to a deep space asteroid. It’s not a budget issue, the ISS has cost more than a manned Mars mission would’ve cost. The issue is that NASA has developed a culture of being afraid of space travel!

Centrifugal gravity is simple physics. You rotate two masses which are attached by a long cable. Microgravity on the other hand is expensive engineering and complex medicin, all without any possible spinoff value to Earth or Mars conditions which don’t suffer from microgravity. Everything from toilets to ventilation is designed much differently in microgravity. Inspite of 2½ hours exercising a day, very expensive working hours on heavy expensive microgravity exercising equipment while consuming more calories and water and spreading sweat all over the place, health effects of microgravity are still devastating! We can’t send explorers to Mars who can’t walk, who have eye and skin problems.

Micrometeorites? Staying in LEO with all the space debris is another problem which real space travel doesn’t have. The ISS has nothing to do with space travel, it is in no way designed as a stepping stone towards that goal.

Ken Kremer January 17, 2014 at 9:47 PM

you have completely misunderstood the entire point

Torbjörn Larsson January 17, 2014 at 6:47 AM

It would be interesting to know what happened with the projections of ISS module life, since IIRC those where what set the initial estimates of affordable use.

What would happen if an ISS module fails?

Michael Reynolds January 17, 2014 at 7:51 AM

It would depend on what module failed and the type of failure that occured

newSteveZodiac January 17, 2014 at 10:14 AM

This is very good news. Most of the arguments here seem to be base camp/no base camp for a Mars expedition. The huge resources needed for such a long non-stop journey require a leviathan lifter and that’s not coming in a hurry – if at all.

If SpaceX et al. can ship stuff up a bit at a time in cheap launchers then we need to get experience of in-orbit assembly. A Bigelow style pressurized unit attached to the ISS would be more feasible than doing it in spacewalks. Micro-g 3D printing and manufacturing also need to be explored. If something valuable can be constructed only in micro-g then that would also provide a revenue stream to keep the whole thing progressing.

The ISS can also be used to trial the VASIMR drive to maintain its orbit and if we need anything fission powered out there then shipping up nuclear fuel small quantities at a time will solve the launch safety boycott.

Ken Kremer January 17, 2014 at 9:49 PM

this is a good post!

GunillaBx January 17, 2014 at 10:27 AM

Eight girls and four boys. I guess the boys just bypasses a political party like NASA and goes straight to Space-X and others to do real space work.

Sarah_Jane_Lambert January 17, 2014 at 5:35 PM

Oh goody, another 35 years of boldly going nowhere. Bring back the Right Stuff!

Paul Vondra January 17, 2014 at 10:01 PM

One of the original selling points of the station, then known as “Freedom,” was as a “stepping-stone” to interplanetary voyages. That was in the 1980s. It wasn’t true then, it isn’t true now and it isn’t likely to be true any time in the next proposed 36 years either. It has been, if anything, an impediment.

Sarah_Jane_Lambert January 18, 2014 at 1:58 PM

I totally agree. If you want to go somewhere, you should go. As long as Nasa is constituency driven, it’s in their interest to string any particular (non-deep space) project out as long as possible. I’m putting my hopes to actually do something new with the Chinese or people like Elon Musk. It’s really sad for a proud space nation such as the US to let manned spaceflight slide so.

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