NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have both expressed intentions to keep the International Space Station (ISS) operating at least until 2030, representing a six-year extension on its previous final operating date.
NASA has also secured political support from the White House to ensure the money is there to make this happen. Two of the station's other partners, the space agencies of Japan and Canada, are also expected to come on board, but Russia is considering withdrawal from 2025. Since the US provides most of the ISS's funding, whatever the station's name may say, endorsement from NASA is likely to ensure its continuation.
In a year generally regarded as one of the worst, NASA seemed determined to provide some hope over the holiday season. After the Christmas Day successful launch of the most powerful space telescope yet, the ISS extension was announced on New Year's Eve.
“The International Space Station is a beacon of peaceful international scientific collaboration and for more than 20 years has returned enormous scientific, educational, and technological developments to benefit humanity,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson in a statement. “I’m pleased that the Biden-Harris Administration has committed to continuing station operations through 2030.”
The following day ESA director Josef Aschbacher indicated his agency's concurrence.
NASA noted more than 3,000 research investigations have been conducted on the ISS in the 23 years since it began operations. Although it is often the quirky ones that get attention, such as a $23 million toilet, space cookies, and space tacos, the ISS's work is vital if long-term space missions are to occur. If future missions to Mars want to grow fresh food on the way or simply ensure astronauts' bones don't collapse from too long in micro-gravity, it will be ISS work that shows them the way. More urgently, Nelson referred to the Artemis program's planned return to the Moon as another project that will benefit from ISS work.
Meanwhile, people on Earth benefit from the measurements of ecosystem health and advances in water recycling that take place from the eye above the sky.
The announcement follows the passage of the Leading Human Spaceflight Act supporting just such an extension, which passed Congress in 2018. However, NASA's previous administrator, James Bridenstine, had indicated a preference for the private sector to take over operations in low-Earth orbit.
Despite the extension, NASA is starting the process of planning for what comes next, a month ago providing contracts to design future space stations.