ESA (European Space Agency) faces the threat of having no way to get its cargo and astronauts to the international space station (ISS) because NASA has decided to cut off the U.S. space shuttle early - in 2010 - five years before a new generation of space craft take over the transport duties.
A planned temporary arrangement for Europeans and Americans to use Russia’s Soyuz shuttles in the interim now seems in jeopardy because of tensions in the wake of Russian actions in Georgia.
NASA and ESA had collaborated on designing a station crew-return vehicle based on an earlier experimental craft, the X-38, but the project has been dropped on the U.S. side even though the European parts were being delivered.
As reported by the BBC, ESA was caught short by NASA’s action. “The decision to cancel the order was delivered by the U.S. government after the components were ready, according to Mario Caporicci, head of ESA’s future space transport infrastructure division, the BBC said on September 12, 2008.
Already, there were question marks about the continuing U.S. role in the ISS after the current shuttle program is discontinued in 2010. The U.S. “constellation” space program has slowed its development pace because of technical and funding problems, and the NASA announcement left a 5-year gap (at least) of no U.S. transportation to and from the station.
An embarrassing aspect of this decision is that the U.S. had promised transportation services to its European, Japanese, and Canadian partners, who all provided their own laboratory materials and equipment to the station.
So what can the grounded Europeans do? A proposal is currently underway to evolve their existing cargo vessel (ATV) into having the capability to transport astronauts, which is considered a necessary second step by Mr. Caporicci and ESA. “To achieve this second step, it will be necessary to analyze in detail the implications of adapting the Arianne 5 launcher and its ground segment to human spaceflight,” Caporicci said.
The longstanding alternative had involved leasing Russian space-craft to ferry freight and people, but that appears unacceptable in Washington under the current circumstances. “The Russians are not going to back out of Georgia anytime soon, certainly not prior to the U.S. presidential election,” NASA chief Michael Griffin told the BBC.
In practice, he predicted, the next U.S. administration will have no choice but to extend the life of the U.S. shuttle. So Europeans will have to wait until the November election and January inauguration before having a clue about the fate of the international program centered on the space station.