The European Space Agency is proposing a far-reaching common space transport policy for low Earth orbit that could help overcome potential logistics problems for International Space Station utilisation.
Currently only Russia is providing International Space Station crew transport with its Energia Soyuz spacecraft. NASA's Discovery flight STS-128, launched on 28 August, was the last scheduled Shuttle-based ISS crew rotation. And after the Shuttle fleet retires in 2010 ISS will rely on the cargo spacecraft of ESA, Russia and Japan until NASA's commercial providers - Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences - begin. If any of these are delayed or fail then station research could become very limited and its crew of six could have to be reduced to three.
Speaking exclusively to Flightglobal at the International Astronautical Congress in Daejeon, South Korea, ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain explained that a common policy could end the situation where "everyone is buying something but there is no co-ordination". He says ISS partners need to understand what capabilities the others have or are developing, and agree on what launchers and spacecraft - and how many - are needed for LEO access.
NASA is developing its Orion crew exploration vehicle and the agency is helping companies design launch systems with its commercial crew programme but neither's future is guaranteed while President Barack Obama decides what to do with spaceflight policy - a decision that may not be made until late 2010.
Some co-ordination has begun. For example, for two years now ESA and NASA have been working on a common docking and berthing mechanism standard. This could be adopted by new ISS members able to provide transportation. Next year talks are expected with India and South Korea to join the ISS programme and India expects to fly its own three-man capsule by 2016. China also wants ISS membership and its Shenzhou spacecraft could provide crew transport and the country has plans for a cargo vehicle.
Dordain will attend the 23 October 1st European Union ESA international conference on human space exploration in Prague. This conference will kick start a year-long process that could lead to EU funding for crew and cargo transportation to LEO and beyond.