The European Space Agency has had informal discussions with NASA on providing commercial Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) supply flights to the International Space Station (ISS), beyond the five missions it will provide to support ISS operations.
With the retirement of the Space Shuttle planned by the end of 2010, NASA has to negotiate alternative crew and cargo supply arrangements with its partners to meet obligations under the ISS framework agreement.
From 2009, the partners plan to increase the station's crew complement from three to six. The simplest option for NASA would be to pay Russia for extra Soyuz crew and Progress cargo flights. But NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services programme could result in a cargo delivery and return capability by 2010, while ESA is ready to offer its ATV, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is to offer its supply craft, the H-IIB Transfer Vehicle.
"It is obvious [a commercial purchase of ATV] is good for European industry, but [NASA] is looking at the total panorama [of potential suppliers]," says ESA's human spaceflight, microgravity and exploration director Daniel Sacotte.
Although 25 July is the date for the ATV's maiden flight, ESA is still negotiating with European launch provider Arianespace to use an upgraded Ariane 5. The next available date is September, but Sacotte admits there is "a huge amount of traffic going to the station" at that time, making it more likely ATV will first fly in 2008.
ESA's planned nine ATV flights were cut to five last December.