Panel Recommends Life Extension for Space Station

But at what cost to further space exploration?

International Space Station Above The Earth

NASA

NASA should extend space station operations beyond the planned 2016 retirement, according to a subcommittee of the presidential panel reviewing the human space program's future. But some members also warned that such a step could delay the return of astronauts to the moon.

This comes shortly after NASA had announced plans to de-orbit the International Space Station in 2016. Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada all support extending the $100-billion collaborative venture beyond 2015.

The subcommittee also suggested adding an eighth shuttle flight to keep the space station humming and fill the gap between shuttle retirement and the launch of the next-generation U.S. spacecraft.

Reuters reports that any such plan requires an additional $1.5 billion for the last seven shuttle missions, and another $2.7 billion just for the proposed eighth flight.

A planned shuttle retirement for 2010 will almost certainly fall through at the current rate of shuttle missions, and so the subcommittee also recommended pushing it back to March 2011.

Another option on the table involves flying the shuttle through 2014 as an alternative plan that involves developing a new launch system with existing shuttle rocket parts. That would mean canceling NASA's Ares rocket testing, which has already undergone delays.

Either way, the New York Times quoted a panel member's warning that continuing the space shuttle and space station operations means a delay in plans for astronauts to walk on the moon once more.