Instead of splashing into the Pacific in 2020 as planned, the international space station will continue circling Earth for at least four more years, NASA said Wednesday.
William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the extra time would lead more scientists to propose experiments, spur a young commercial space industry and allow the space agency to solve health and technical challenges before sending its astronauts on more distant missions.
If the station were destined for destruction in six years, scientists and companies would be more reluctant to invest their time and money, Gerstenmaier said.
“Potentially, that creates a new economy in space,” he said.
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Two companies, SpaceX and the Orbital Sciences, fly cargo to the space station, and NASA is looking to hire commercial “space taxis” to take astronauts beginning in 2017. Gerstenmaier said he thought that more companies would now also look at how they could take advantage of the weightlessness of space for profit.
Last year, NASA studied the station and concluded it could last until 2028. The other space agencies participating in it, including the European Space Agency and those of Russia and Japan, have not decided whether they, too, will continue beyond 2020.
“In general, they’re all pretty supportive,” Gerstenmaier said, adding that if necessary, NASA would go it alone.
Last month, a valve in a cooling pump failed, curtailing work on the station until astronauts installed a spare pump, an incident that illustrated the need for more reliable systems for deep-space missions.
A cargo rocket that was to be launched to the space station Wednesday by Orbital Sciences was delayed until at least Thursday, because of an explosion on the sun and the torrent of charged particles that could have interfered with the spacecraft’s electronics.