Not quite in orbit

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Uncertainy is the key word for space agencies on both sides of the Atlantic

Space exploration is exciting because it is uncertain, and because of the promise of discovery on alien worlds, but that uncertainty is now creating problems for the space agencies that undertake those interplanetary journeys. At the Paris air show the upheaval in the US space programme, the prospect of a European Union space policy, and the absence of the European Space Agency created a sense of the unknown that was unnerving.

Mike Griffin, NASA administrator for all of 10 weeks, did not mince his words when he spoke at Paris about what the future of the Space Shuttle programme may or may not hold. He made it clear there are “no guarantees” about the Shuttle fleet’s future.

The remaining orbiters Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour are “not going to have the same capability they had before the Columbia disaster”, Griffin said. NASA will only know after the return-to-flight missions, scheduled for July and September, how many Shuttle flights will remain until its 2010 retirement.

New system

Griffin’s comments do not bode well for the International Space Station (ISS). The Shuttle was supposed to complete assembly of the ISS over 28 missions, including delivery of the European Columbus module, the Japanese Kibo laboratory and Russia’s remaining segments. But at Le Bourget Griffin spoke of completing the ISS using a “new system”, widely expected to be an unmanned cargo version of the Shuttle to be available after 2010.

atlas_heavy

This raises the question of when the ISS partners will see their sections go up. ESA has already suffered one setback caused by unilateral US action, with cancellation of the X-38 in 2001 ending plans for a NASA/ESA ISS emergency return vehicle. Russia’s Soyuz capsule does the job today, and even if the Shuttle returns to four or five flights a year there is no replacement for the Soyuz. But after 2006 NASA becomes responsible for crew safety and only its planned Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) could potentially fulfil that role.

At Le Bourget Griffin would not confirm a 2010 target date for the CEV’s availability to replace Shuttle. He would only say NASA could deploy the vehicle before 2014 – its original deadline for a replacement manned spaceflight capability. The USA could buy Soyuz capsules, but its 1999 Iran Non-Proliferation Act prevents NASA from buying space services from Russia. Without an emergency return vehicle, there can be no crew. And without a crew, no ISS.

ESA, meanwhile, had almost no presence at the show despite being headquartered in Paris. Just a handful of experts were present at several industry press conferences. This was strange in a year that saw ESA successes with the Huygens probe landing on Titan and the return to flight of the Ariane 5 ECA. But with its budget up for re-negotiation, a process made more complicated by the addition of two new members, Greece and Luxembourg, ESA’s future is perhaps even more uncertain than NASA’s.

Already the number of missions planned by 2015 under ESA’s Aurora long-term exploration programme have been cut. Two technology demonstrator missions have been dropped and the two Martian exploration missions that survive will have substantial NASA involvement. Speaking at the show, Italian space agency president Sergio Vetrella said: “We have no clear path of future exploration programmes. We have to identify the steps to follow. The mandatory budget could include science and Mars missions, but Mars spacecraft must be optional programmes.”

The new European Union space policy could affect ESA deeply because 13 of the agency’s 16 members are EU states. After two discussions already this year, the ESA-EU space council is still working towards an agreement at its third meeting in October.

Postponing problems

But it is not expected to deliver anything to make the future clearer. Vetrella expresses doubts over the policy discussions. “It’s going to be so general, it’s postponing the real problem [of where we spend the money],” he says.

Whatever emerges, the Galileo satellite navigation system will probably become the central plank of the European space programme. But this public/private partnership, worth billions of euros, also has an opaque future. Despite a clear tender process for selecting a single operator, or concessionaire, Alcatel Space admitted at the show that the two competing consortia would offer a joint proposal.

If that was not enough, the potential for USA to cause havoc to the project also emerged. Galileo manager-designate Günter Stamerjohanns expressed the fear that components key to the Galileo satellites could be withheld because of US arms export controls. Stamerjohanns also said that Russian needs to decide what it wants from Galileo before there is any progress with membership talks.

The same could be said of ESA’s potential involvement in Russia’s six-person Kliper crew transport vehicle. Russia is pushing for international co-operation on Kliper because it does not have the resources to fund development itself. But ESA will not decide if it will become fully involved in the development for two more years, and NASA is too focused on its CEV. Within ESA, Kliper will have to fight for a share of the manned spaceflight directorate’s annual €600 million ($722 million) budget.

New Russian and US manned vehicles with questionable futures, deployment of Space Station modules delayed into the next decade, confusion over management of multi-billion-euro satellite constellations – there is an asteroid field of danger ahead for the space sector. Come Le Bourget 2007, the path to cosmic discovery may be clearer, or the world’s space programmes may simply be on another planet.

ROB COPPINGER