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What Will Become Of The International Space Station?

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What we seem to have here is a classic NASA fuckeroo.

Who knew that the President’s call for a new Vision for Space Exploration would result in the end of so many scientific programs and projects? Those that watch NASA are watching slack-jawed at the wide spread down sizing (RIF), and the outright cancellation of almost every program that doesn’t directly support the “Vision”.

This appears to include America’s interest in the International Space Station.

It may be prudent from a purely American point of view (our shuttle and crew at risk), but our European partners in the ISS have put a lot into this project. They have invested in the ISS, they have provided crew members for the flights, and they have been just as frustrated with the delays in the Shuttle program as any space-happy Yank.

And they’re very concerned by the reduction in flights of the Space Shuttle. It’s not clear yet, but this reduction may include flights that were supposed to carry their work into orbit. Our partners are sitting on equipment that’s been designed and built, and has been ready to launch since 2003. Including the Columbia Science Module, Europe’s showcase contribution to the ISS, with a billion dollar price tag.

This then, from Business Monday:

Europe has begun evaluating its options in the event the U.S. space shuttle is retired too early to launch the Columbus science laboratory, Europe’s billion-dollar contribution to the international space station, European Space Agency (ESA) Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said July 28.

ESA has ordered a team of engineers to evaluate scenarios in which the shuttle is capable of launching 20 times, 15 times and 10 times between now and its intended 2010 retirement date. The study, whose conclusions are expected in early September, includes a scenario in which the shuttle cannot launch the Columbus module.

“I will have an evaluation of all these scenarios, including a scenario in which there is no Columbus,” Dordain said in an interview. “My biggest concern is to optimize the investments that our member governments have already made.”

Columbus is the centerpiece of a multibillion-dollar European investment in the space station that includes an unmanned space tug, called the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) that will deliver water, fuel and other supplies to the station. The ATV, whose first launch is scheduled for mid-2006, has been financed by ESA governments in part to repay NASA for the U.S. investment in the station’s basic infrastructure and utility-type support including electricity and astronaut transport.

Dordain said that if Columbus is not launched, the ATV program’s original reason for being would be lost and the program’s interest to European governments would diminish.

ESA has spent some 300 million euros ($362 million) in charges directly related to the delay in the launch of the Columbus lab, which is completed and in storage at EADS Space Transportation’s Bremen, Germany, plant. Those delay-related costs are certain to rise, as the estimates assumed a Columbus launch by the U.S. shuttle in 2006. A 2007 date is more likely — assuming no further delays.

Like a similar laboratory built by Japan, Europe’s Columbus facility was designed for launch only on the shuttle.

ESA member governments plan to meet in December in Berlin to fix the agency’s mid-term financial and program objectives. Dordain said that by then he hopes the latest shuttle-related issues are resolved, and that the vehicle has been once again cleared for flight.

If not, he said, he will canvass his government members to determine how they wish to proceed.

“Maybe we can use the station even without Columbus, and barter ATV against some kind of access to the station,” Dordain said. “We are looking at all kinds of possibilities. We also need to think about whether, even if it is launched, we will be able to use it as we planned. There is no sense in launching Columbus without being able to use it fully. I know this: Our governments have invested billions of euros into this project, and right now my top priority for the program is to maximize a return on that investment.” [end]

I can only imagine their frustration. I would like to see the ISS brought up to the minimum configuration for sustained scientific research. I think we owe our international partners this measure of commitment.

Some folks have openly called for the scrapping of the ISS. “Don’t spend a single penny on a program that may not provide any returns on the investment. It’s money better spent on manned missions to the Moon or Mars, rather than on an already-out-of-date Space Station.”

I disagree with this for several reasons. First, we really don’t know what will be discovered by the scientists working in the ISS. But the other member nations are willing to find out, with or without the USA’s participation. “Just launch the damn modules so we can get on with it!”

Second, the ISS is the perfect proving ground for companies like SpaceX. Give them a long term contract for re-supplying the ISS, and watch them step up to the plate. Let an American company profit from this mission, while saving NASA tens of millions of dollars.

Third, I believe that it’s a good thing to have a human habitat orbiting our home planet. If nothing else, it’s a monument to the growth of our species over the last 10,000 years. A monument to the research, engineering, and construction that went into every single part or component that we’ve sent up there. And it’s a monument to the cooperation between the leaders of Earth’s major space programs.

The ISS is a unique achievement, and I’ll always think of it as a symbol of our species’ potential.

“Working together, the people of our planet built this.”

That’s worth a monument, isn’t it?

Also posted at VERMONT SPACE
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About Bennett Dawson

  • Terrific piece as always, Bennett. I, too, would like to see a real and continued commitment to our International Space Station as well as to the plan for a Crew Exploration Vehicle and Dr. Griffin’s plan for for further exploration.

    The Washington Post had an interesting article on some of these similar themes. One of the things they pointed out was there is currently a rare interest in funding NASA and some confidence in Griffin.

    I still want to see us do both. We have put so much into ISS and we are almost to the point where we could actually DO SOMETHING with it. Now is not the time to abandon it.

  • DJRadiohead – Hell, even I have confidence in Dr. Griffin. Even WITH the RIFs within NASA. If you have a mission, and the funds have to come from within the agency, you start cutting.

    What I’m afraid of is a vision that ends up being canceled ten years down the road. What then? Again I say, if the Chinese weren’t pressing forward with their own space program, I would think there was a conspiracy afloat to kill off NASA.

    Luckily, China seems serious. This, I believe, is what has led to the unprecedented support of NASA’s budget by our federal government.

    It’s about time.

  • Here’s an odd thought. Electronics get smaller and lighter every year. By now it should not be too difficult to retrofit one of the existing Space Shuttles for fully automated flight, so it can be launched with no need for any crew.

    Could this allow for more Shuttle flights with less risk to humans, and enable us to launch all the remaining International Space Station modules, along with any other satellites, probes, and other spacecraft that only the Shuttle can carry into orbit?

    I realize this idea has probably been discussed many times in groups devoted to space exploration, but I haven’t had time to keep up with them lately, so I’m mentioning it here, in my favorite discussion forum.

  • Not bad Victor! Launch and ISS rendezvous I can see, landing not so much. But that may just be a personal mental barrier. I have a hard time seeing the shuttle come in via remote control, like some jumbo sized RC contraption.

    But I’d pay to see it. Bleacher seats though…

  • Landings are already nearly automated anyway, from what I recall reading somewhere. Of course, the pilots don’t like to admit this, but if something goes seriously wrong on an unpowered landing (and all Shuttle landings are unpowered) there’s very little a pilot can do to salvage the situation.

    Docking with ISS is another maneuver it could be considered difficult to automate, but Progress cargo ships are docking there without pilots all the time.

  • JR

    Who knew that the President’s call for a new Vision for Space Exploration would result in the end of so many scientific programs and projects?

    I did. And check out Duane’s comments on this thread.

    Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration was blatant bullshit. He trotted that out as cheap political theater to look like he had “the vision thing” that his father lacked. He backloaded the funding so the big bills wouldn’t show up in time to hurt him politically when Congress cancelled it (kind of like the rest of his economic policy, no?) I don’t think I need to comment on his follow through…

    Don’t kid yourself, we’re not going to Mars.

  • Bennett

    JR – I do hope you’re wrong, and yes Duane nailed it. As I’ve said before, I totally ignored the “Vision” for a year, believing it to be just more BS from the king of BS.

    It will be very sad to see, if NASA gets shut down in 2010.

    Oh well, the Chinese will post their Mars pictures to the web at any rate.