NASA is considering extending its involvement in the International Space Station (ISS) from 2016 to 2020, a decision that could have major implications for its Constellation programme.
Last week NASA's Constellation programme manager Jeffrey Hanley revealed the agency's interest in extending ISS use at a ceremony transferring the Kennedy Space Center's operations and check-out building to Orion crew exploration vehicle developer Lockheed Martin. The building is to be modified for Orion final assembly, check-out and acceptance testing.
In previous NASA budget projections the US space agency's spend on ISS is tailed off by 2016, the original date for the agreed end of the ISS's life. Under this plan NASA would retain its pre-2016 ISS funding levels and use the money to develop Constellation's Ares V cargo launch vehicle, lunar lander and lunar-capable block 2 Orion. But continued ISS operations would bring that development into doubt. NASA says: "The ISS will be a valuable asset well into the future and it only makes sense for the agency to keep open all of its options for making use of the space station."
Such a decision would increase the number of production Orions Lockheed would provide. Previously, NASA wanted two ISS mission Block 1 Orions a year from 2014 to 2016. If the agency decides to continue ISS operations for another four years it will need eight more Orions.
The increased station use will also benefit NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contractors, California-based Space Exploration Technologies and Oklahoma's Rocketplane-Kistler. If one or both can demonstrate cargo delivery and return capabilities by 2010 they can expect to be contracted to provide that until 2020.