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Long ago, in a dreamier era, space stations were imagined as portals to the heavens. In the 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the huge structure twirled in orbit, aesthetically sublime, a relaxing way station for astronauts heading to the moon. It featured a Hilton and a Howard Johnson’s.

The international space station of the 21st century isn’t quite as beautiful as that movie version, and it’s not a gateway to anywhere else. It’s a laboratory focused on scientific experiments. Usually there are six people aboard. When they leave, they go back home, down to Earth. Three came home Wednesday, landing in Kazakhstan.

The space station circles the planet at an altitude of about 250 miles. Faint traces of atmosphere exert a drag on it, so the station must be boosted regularly to stay in orbit. In the grand scheme of things, the space station simply isn’t very far away. The station has a phone number with a Houston area code.

Advocates for human-space exploration insist that NASA must think bigger, developing missions beyond Low Earth Orbit, into deeper space — perhaps back to the moon, or to an asteroid, and certainly to Mars eventually.

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But NASA has been struggling for years to square ambitions with budgets. The space station is widely praised as an engineering marvel, but it didn’t come cheap.

The United States has poured close to $100 billion into the program and is contributing about t $3 billion a year to the station’s operation. Space-policy experts warn that, without a significant boost in budget, NASA will not be able to keep running the station and simultaneously carry out new, costly deep-space missions.

The United States and its partners need to make a tough call: Keep the station flying? Or bring it down?

Boeing, the prime contractor, is trying to prove that the station’s components can hold up through at least 2028. Three years ago, Congress extended funding for the station through 2020, and NASA’s international partners — Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency — have made a similar commitment.

But behind the scenes, NASA officials are working to persuade the White House to make a decision, pronto, to keep the orbital laboratory flying after 2020.

The alternative is to crash the massive structure into the South Pacific.

The decision needs to be made in 2014, said William Gerstenmaier, the top NASA official for human spaceflight.

Companies such as SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, which are competing for a NASA contract to carry astronauts to the station, need to know that their market isn’t going to vanish in 2020, he said.

Scientists, pharmaceutical companies and other organizations that do zero-gravity experiments also need to know soon whether “there’s a horizon for the station beyond 2020,” he said.

Although it’s true that the international space station never strays far from Earth, cosmically speaking, it has the virtue of showing what life in space is really like. The PowerPoint version of space travel is always easier than the real thing. There are things that reveal themselves only in zero gravity.

“Stiction,” for example — the way delicate materials stick together without gravity to tug them apart. There’s no way to replicate that on Earth.

Dust has no urge to settle down, and so it clogs air filters faster than engineers had once anticipated. Bacteria grow in odd corners and crannies. Mysterious disks of zinc oxide have stopped up a water line, defying explanation.

In theory, equipment has its own storage space. But that’s not how the place looks in real life. There are laptop computers everywhere and tools Velcroed to the walls. It’s cluttered. New crews famously have to go on treasure hunts to find things that have vanished.

Mundane problems such as clogged filters and mold formation provide lessons for an eventual human mission to Mars.

But space is perhaps the most dangerous place that people have ever lived continuously. A stray pebble or piece of space junk could puncture the shell of the structure and lead to rapid depressurization. Day in, day out, ammonia is a concern. It is critical to the station’s cooling system, but it is also highly toxic.

“Ammonia will kill you in one breath,” said Chris Hadfield, perhaps the most famous astronaut of the 21st century.

The station almost cost one human life. Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano nearly drowned in space this summer.

The astronaut, who represents the European Space Agency, was spacewalking outside the station on July 16 when he felt water on the back of his head. It didn’t seem to be coming from his water bottle. It didn’t feel like sweat. And it was increasing — and migrating, around his head, into his ears, around his nose, doing all the strange things that water does in zero gravity.

NASA is still investigating where the water came from. Early evidence is that the spacesuit’s cooling system malfunctioned. The incident illustrated the obvious fact that there is nothing routine about life in space — that even after nearly five decades of spacewalks, and even with elaborate safeguards, a failure mode could lurk within the American spacesuits.

Hadfield, who had left the station two months earlier, had a succinct description of what happened to Parmitano: “We just about killed him.”

Hadfield knows that most people aren’t paying attention to the men and women passing by overhead. That’s another striking feature of life in space: It’s relatively anonymous. You can go around the world 16 times a day, but few of the 7 billion people down below will ever know your name.

Many astronauts do their best to connect to the Earthlings. Astronauts tweet and update Facebook pages. A few months back, Hadfield made a humdinger of a music video — covering David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity” — that has more than 17 million views on YouTube.

Hadfield also made videos about everyday life in space. Bodily fluids go in strange directions. Your vision blurs, your nose feels stuffy, and you lose your sense of taste.

Water is so dominated by surface tension that it can migrate around your scalp and over your face, as if seeking a hole to invade.

In zero gravity, a flame burns spherically — a ball of fire.

Experiments have touched on fluid dynamics, crystal formation and changes in bacterial virulence. Next year, 20 to 60 rodents will come aboard as research subjects. And the astronauts themselves are under the microscope, revealing the effects of weightlessness and space radiation.

NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency plan to send astronauts to the station for an entire year, starting in the spring of 2015.

A typical work shift lasts 12 hours. Astronauts get one day off a week, a respite from the grind of chores and scientific experiments. Satellite TV reception in space is poor, oddly enough. Smoking and drinking are not allowed. Bodies deteriorate without gravity, and so the astronauts exercise constantly, at least two hours a day.

Astronaut Nicole Stott said she has never slept better in her life than she did in space. No pillow necessary. There are no pressure points on the body. A chronic pain in her arm simply disappeared forever. The only problem with space sleep is that the body naturally forms a zombielike pose, with arms dangling forward.

“It’s kind of scary,” Stott said.

Saturdays are cleaning days. Every surface is essentially a floor, gathering dirt, flakes of skin, stray drops of sweat and bits of food. (Jam has a diabolical tendency to launch itself off toast.)

“What come in really, really handy are baby wipes,” astronaut Doug Wheelock said.

He also likes the Russian towels. They have a lot of texture, ideal for rubbing down a body. Without a shower, dead skin stays put and grows itchy.

“A towel with some texture on it is like heaven, because you can get all the dead skin off you,” Wheelock said. “It feels so good, psychologically.”

A sociological truth has emerged from the international effort: American engineers are more likely to try to finesse a structure, to make it as lightweight and as efficient as possible, while Russians build things stout.

Mike Suffredini, the NASA program manager for the space station, said the station proves that in-orbit construction is possible, and he noted that no component has had to come back to Earth for retooling.

Said McCurdy: “It’s one of the greatest engineering achievements in the history of the world. It ranks with the pyramids.”

Logsdon, the policy analyst, said the station is a marvel, but he said it hasn’t yet proved it was worth the investment. The science has been going full speed only for a couple of years, so it’s too soon to make that judgment, he said.

“It’s an awfully expensive engineering demonstration,” Logsdon said. “If that’s all it is, that’s a hell of a price to pay.”

Conceivably, NASA could lease the station to some private, commercial operation, but it is hard to imagine who might want to take up the cost of operating it.

And all spacecraft get tired and creaky with age. Space is a harsh environment. Metal fatigue is inescapable because of the expansion of the structure as the station moves in and out of sunlight.

So even if the station’s life is extended beyond 2020, it is coming down eventually. NASA could try to salvage a piece here and there, but there are no plans to deconstruct it, so the controlled de-orbit will be a spectacular, fiery event. Too big to burn up completely, the station will crash somewhere in the open water of the South Pacific.

It will be perhaps the most expensive man-made object that human beings have ever intentionally destroyed. This vision of the future will sink to the bottom of the sea, ending another chapter in the history of what people used to call the Space Age.

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