WASHINGTON : After 20 years of continuous habitation, the International Space Station [ISS] has entered its ''Golden Age'' and is abuzz with activity - thanks in large part to the return of the US rocket launches via commercial partner SpaceX.

But though the near-future future of this symbol of post-Cold War cooperation is assured, NASA wants to begin disengaging by the end of the decade, leaving a gap that the private sector and China hope to fill.

''This space station has become the spaceport we wanted to be,'' Kathy Leuders, chief of NASA's human spaceflight program said at a recent press briefing.

The end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 left America dependent on Russian Soyuz rockets for ''taxi'' rides to giant satellite.

SpaceX changed that last year with the success of its Crew Dragon, which is now preparing for its second routine crewed flight, and third overall, in April.

''Our recent agreements with the American private industry have allowed us to bring more people to space, more people to the International Space Station,'' said Joel Montalbano, NASA's ISS program manager.

Since the spacecraft can carry four people - compared to three for Soyuz - the standard crew size for the space station has grown from six to seven people.

The ISS therefore needs a new bed - with assembly currently underway.

SpaceX's Crew-2 mission blasts off from Florida on April 22, and the four astronauts will overlap for a few days with the crew of Crew-1 before that team returns from its six-month mission.

During this time, the station will accommodate no fewer than 11 people.

''We're going to be kind of I think in a campout mode,'' joked Crew-2 spacecraft commander Shane Kimbrough.

''We just find a place to sleep on a wall somewhere or on the ceiling, it doesn't matter up there. ''

''We're entering the Golden Age of ISS utilization,'' David Parker, director of human and robotic at the European Space Agency [ESA].

It was former president Ronald Reagan who invoked America's ''pioneer spirit'' when he directed NASA to ''develop a permanently manned space station.''

The first components were sent into space in 1998, while the first crew spent several months there in 2000.

The latest pressurized module was fitted in 2011, leaving the enormous artificial satellite 357 feet [109 meters] end-to-end, about the size of a an American football field.

''For the half of the space station's life, most of the focus was on building it,'' Robert Pearlman, a space historian and author of ''Space Stations : The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space'' told AFP.


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