No one really believes the United States would dump the international space station into the ocean just five years after the $100 billion project is finally finished, but here's the reality: NASA has no budget for the program beyond 2015.
Saving the space station, and possibly expanding the project, emerged this week as a top priority for two subcommittees of the presidential panel reviewing the U.S. human space program.
"We didn't start off with that perspective," committee member and former astronaut Sally Ride, told colleagues on the panel. "We don't think the deorbit of the international space station in 2016 makes sense."
Rather than killing the program, panel members are considering recommending an expanded role for the station, both in mission and scope, such as adding new partners, including China, into the program.
"We can use the partnership as training ground for how we would do an international exploration effort," added panel member Leroy Chiao, also a former astronaut.
"Some potential candidate nations are financially pretty healthy, so it's not unreasonable to think that there could be some cost offsets for the current partners," he added.
The space station is a joint project of the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada and has been under construction 225 miles above Earth for more than a decade. It is scheduled to be finished next year.
Panel members pitched a plan to create a new quasi-private entity to run the outpost, similar to how the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute oversees the Hubble Space Telescope.
They also proposed shifting the station's research program to rebuild a microgravity science capability that was nearly decimated by budget cuts needed to build the outpost.
Continuing station operations would also spur development of a commercial passenger service to space by creating a market, some panel members said.
NASA plans to pay Russia to ferry crews to and from the outpost after the shuttle is retired next year. Ending the station in 2015 would not give aspiring commercial launch firms seeking to take over that business time to develop their vehicles and profitably fly them.
A survey of the station partners shows "strong unanimous support," for continuing the program through at least 2020, said panel member Lester Lyles.
"Their political leaders are looking for a return on their investments," he said.
No matter what the United States decides, Russia has said it will continue operating the station, though NASA believes that is not technically possible.
"They're pretty clever and we should not underestimate their ability to do something like that," said Chiao, who served as a station commander for six months.
The panel is scheduled to make its report to the White House by Aug. 31.