The International Space Station will fly until 2024 with its full complement of partners, now that Europe has formally committed to stay on board the programme until its planned decommissioning.
European Space Agency member states agreed at their ministerial-level budget and priorities meeting in Lucerne on 1-2 December to extend participation in line with commitments by their ISS partners the USA, Russia, Japan and Canada. The ISS has been crewed continuously since 2000 and was originally slated for de-orbiting in 2018, but the partners agreed to extend that to 2020; two years ago, the Americans determined to fund it until 2024 and the others – now including Europe – have followed suit.
Europe’s decision to stick with the ISS is welcome – NASA associate administrator William Gerstenmaier said ESA’s partnership was “critical” – but not surprising. ESA director general Jan Woerner betrayed no anxiety in January 2016, when the other partners had already committed; he recognised that Europe could walk away, but noted that good science is done on board, the big investments in building the station have already been made and decisions in Europe come slowly.
The big question remains, though: what comes after the ISS? Engineers believe the station – which endures large sunlight-to-darkness thermal loads and mechanical stresses in its 90min orbit and is also struck regularly by micrometeorites – could be operated safely until 2028. The Russians have indicated enthusiasm for another extension, but also suggest that ISS modules they have supplied could be maintained in orbit and incorporated into a new station. NASA has merely acknowledged Russian talk of an extension.
For NASA, money freed up by an end to the ISS is a key factor in its affordability argument for missions, such as asteroid capture, intended as precursors to a 2030s human Mars visit. ESA, meanwhile, is urging its ISS partners and other spacefaring nations to help it flesh out concepts for a “Moon village” as a next stage in space exploration.
At the Lucerne meeting, ESA member states underscored their support for the Ariane 6 and Vega C launcher programmes and for the launch facilities in French Guiana; the budget commitment up to 2021 is €10.3 billion ($11.1 billion). Ministers also stressed ongoing co-operation between the European Union and ESA, and backed Woerner’s vision of “Space 4.0”, which sees ESA acting to "inform, innovate, interact and inspire" Europeans to strengthen co-operation in the space sector for the benefit of European citizens.
ESA ministers will next meet in Spain in late 2019.