Russia is ready and willing to discuss the extension of the lifespan of the International Space Station to 2028, according to Russian space agency director general Igor Komarov, speaking on April 4 at the 33rd Space Symposium, Colorado Springs.

Back in 2015, Russia said it would only support the mission — its collaboration with the United States, Japan, Europe, and Canada — until 2024.

Keeping Low Earth Orbit A Priority

"I think we need to prolong our collaboration in low Earth orbit," said Komarov, who confirmed a proposal within Roscosmos to build a new space laboratory if the ISS actually becomes retired by 2024.

At present, the United States and Russia share management and support of the station, while the other collaborators contribute and have committed to do so until 2024. Komarov confirmed, however, that they are ready to talk about extending the ISS mission through 2028.

Space experts largely agree on the importance of the ISS and research in low Earth orbit, especially in light of how the space environment affects the human body for prolonged periods of time. This is a major consideration if one is looking at a long journey to planet Mars.

For Komarov, long-term human presence on Mars will entail a practical program that comprises bringing humans in low Earth orbit and then on the lunar surface. Far more exotic or distant destinations in the solar system are also part of the vision, he added.

To be consistently present in low Earth orbit means training astronauts for farther locations, where they can develop the necessary survival skills such as growing fresh food and exercising to fight microgravity effects.

The orbiting outpost has been staffed permanently with a crew made up of cosmonauts and astronauts since November 2000. The $100 billion space lab is positioned 250 miles above Earth and continues to orbit the planet.

Backup Plan?

If the ISS’s extension does not push through, Russia is eyeing to continue its research in low Earth orbit on its own. It’s not turning away from cooperation with other countries but is instead being “on the safe side,” Komarov stressed.

Roscosmos has been exploring an added module for the ISS, known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module. Planned for launch in 2018, the module will give rise to plans of adding more Russian cosmonauts on board, from the current two to three. Interestingly, the agency recently slashed its crew member count from three to two.

Further, the country is working on a science module as well as a docking module, and together the three rooms are poised to form an independent Russian station. This plan, said Komarov, will help them avoid the loss of a space lab once the ISS meets end of life.

These plans, after all, could all boil down to Russia’s ambition to also send humans to Mars. For Russia, however, it’s not just about planting its flag in Martian dust and returning to the home planet, but also putting in place a program to “support long-term human exploration” of the Red Planet.

Just recently, Roscosmos declared that it has no plans to send space tourists to its segment of the ISS prior to 2020. Roscosmos deputy director general for international cooperation Sergey Savelyev told Sputnik that this is due to the lack of the relevant capabilities to do so.

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