The heads of five agencies building the International Space Station staged talks on Thursday on tackling a looming transport problem for the ISS and gave positive signals for extending the orbital outpost’s life beyond 2015.
The ISS will need extra transport for crew and freight to substitute for the US space shuttle, scheduled to be retired in 2010 when the ISS is completed.
A US replacement for the shuttle, a rocket-and-capsule system called Aries-Orion, is due to be operational around 2015.
The head of the Russian Space Agency, Anatoly Perminov, told reporters that the United States and Russia will hold talks on beefing up flights by the Soviet-era workhorse, Soyuz, to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS between 2011 and 2014.
“By the end of this year or by the beginning of next year at the latest, the whole rationale for our cooperation will be laid out,” Perminov told a press conference at European Space Agency (ESA) headquarters.
Possible shuttle substitutes for freight, mulled by the agency chiefs, are commercial operators as well as Japan’s unmanned cargo ship, the H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), due to be launched for the first time next year by its H-2 rocket, the Russian supply vessel Progress, and ESA’s own cargo ship, which docked automatically with the ISS in March.
Begun in 1998, the ISS is scheduled to be completed in 2010 after suffering long delays as a result of the loss of the shuttle Columbia and enduring major cost overruns.
The US has shouldered the lion’s share of the cost. The four other partners are Russia, ESA, Japan and Canada.
Use it while it’s useful
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told the press conference that the ISS would be a $100-billion asset when completed, and it was unlikely that the station’s partners would want to give up this investment when the facility’s official life comes to an end.
“I believe all the partners expect to go to their governments supporting the extension of the station’s life… beyond 2015. I personally think the station will continue to be used as long as its use is productive.”
“I think the idea of having a fixed end-date for the space station is technically and politically unrealistic,” said Griffin.
“One doesn’t put up a 500-ton orbiting research facility, one doesn’t decide to simply shut it off because a certain calendar date has been reached.”
“There will come a day when the space station’s sustenance costs us as a partnership more than the value of the research that continues to be generated from it and on that day the partnership to move on to other things. But that will be a utility-driven decision in my opinion, not a date-driven decision.”
The agency chiefs hailed what they said had been an excellent year for the ISS, with the addition of several important modules.
Griffin said the ISS had been a test bed for future cooperation. He mentioned US plans to set up a lunar colony and eventually head to Mars.
“The partnership will outlive the space station,” he said.