"Each year brings corrections to the programme", Anatoly Perminov head of Russia's Federal Space Agency said dryly at the heads of agencies International Space Station (ISS) press conference last week His agency has been considering the long term future of the station. Its already had to swallow the hard fact that its science power module would not be launched by a Shuttle, as planned. Russia would like to see the station operated after 2016, which is the end of the ISS certified flight period. NASA meanwhile considers the very near future of the station.
As Perminov notes the Space Shuttle programme has changed again and now we are on 18 flights, including two contingency missions, which means its really sixteen and the 19 flight plan announced just before December is shelved. The nineteenth flight was supposed to be the Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. I do not think that will ever happen. NASA administrator Mike Griffin repeatedly says that NASA will determine at some stage whether or not it can do the Hubble mission. And he has the time to do it. Although Hubble will stop working in a couple of years it can sit in orbit for many years to come.
But being realistic the ISS assembly needs will end hopes for such a mission. NASA is soon to announce that Discovery/STS-121 will not take place in May. Its really expected in July followed by an October launch for Atlantis/STS-115 and then STS-117 is scheduled for December. But two missions in one year is the more likely outcome with -117 being pushed by glitches into January 2007. It would become one of around six launches NASA's planning has scheduled for next year. But then there is reality. NASA's extreme sensitivity to any technical hitches and foam loss will ensure that testing and analysis of anomalies that can be expected on STS-121 will hold up the launch schedule sufficientl to ensure -117 and STS-118 take up the first two quarters.
So at some point next year expect another re-evaluation of the ISS. Another final configuration. Russia might wish it had gone ahead with Mir 2 in the early 1990s instead of joining then President Bill Clinton's call for co-operation for the ISS. If Japan and the European Space Agency do not get their modules launched they might want to exchange that for astronaut time on the station. ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter will travel to the ISS on Discovery/STS-121 for the European agency's first six month mission aboard the station. It will be owed a lot more time on station if its Columbus laboratory is grounded.
Whatever happens with Shuttle and Station the partners should, as the Russians propose, continue with ISS. Although it could be complicated with US modules providing power and NASA no longer formally part of the endeavour, the station itself is an important feat of engineering and for long term space travel its systems and their reliability are going to be key. There is no other test bed available for technology that an inter-planetary ship would need for a Mars mission. A post-NASA ISS should also consider working with the Chinese, and possibly the Indians.
An incomplete station with realistic research goals and partners that can meet their obligations could actually be better for the long term needs of human space exploration.