2009 could see worldwide docking standards agreed

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NASA is likely to start discussions with India and China next year about a common docking system that the US Congress has directed the space agency to investigate.

The NASA Authorisation act 2008 directs the agency's administrator to enter into discussions with space-faring nations to agree a "common docking system standard" for crew rescue from stranded spacecraft. China has now had three manned Shenzhou spacecraft missions and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has proposed to its government an astronaut mission in 2015.

Both India and China are participating in the multilateral global exploration strategy talks about an international lunar outpost. Bilaterally NASA's science mission directorate met with the China National Space Administration (CNSA) from 30 June to 1 July and a follow-up visit by the CNSA to the USA is planned for December. But this will not address the docking issue. In February NASA signed a framework agreement with ISRO that includes human spaceflight co-operation.

The authorisation act also has implications for NASA's Orion crew exploration vehicle that has yet to reach its preliminary design review, now planned for mid-2009.

"This [common docking system standard] will mean the creation of a number of international standards for allowing the safe interoperability of the docked systems, software, communication, attitude control, power, pressure equalisation, air quality, etc," says International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety president Tommaso Sgobba.

This is not the first time the USA has addressed this issue. In July 1990 an international spacecraft rendezvous and docking conference was held at the NASA Johnson Space Center. Russian and US spacecraft have docked a number of times, beginning with the 1970s Apollo Soyuz Test Project, the 1990s Mir-Shuttle missions and now the International Space Station uses a Russian docking mechanism design.