NASA International Space Station safety concerns and commercial cargo supply issues to be resolved by review

The European Space Agency's first Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) will begin its programme's four-month long qualification process in April, which will help to answer NASA's questions about International Space Station (ISS) safety and the potential for commercial ATV cargo supply.

NASA conducted a safety-related ATV flight operations review in January, which was chaired by the US agency's administrator Michael Griffin. The review was to meet a recommendation of the Congressionally mandated ISS Independent Safety Task Force.

Issues raised in that review, such as possible in-flight ATV sensor failure scenarios, were discussed at a management-level meeting of the ISS partners in Houston, Texas at the beginning of March. ATV will rendezvous and dock with the ISS Russian segment automatically.

NASA has wanted to use experience from its failed DART automatic rendezvous and docking mission to examine ATV operations. But the ATV flight-control system is different to that of both DART and Orbital Express, another US autonomous rendezvous and docking mission launched on 8 March, which is not being used for the flight operation comparison.

Meanwhile, ESA's qualification process is expected to resolve most of NASA's safety-related concerns and is expected to end in July, when Jules Verne, the first of five planned ATVs, was scheduled to be launched.

"At the moment the probability of [a 25 July ATV launch] is fairly low. Soon we should have a new launch date agreed [with our ISS partners]," says ESA ATV programme manager John Ellwood.

Parallel to the qualification process and starting in April will be NASA/ESA cargo configuration production studies involving ATV manufacturer EADS Astrium Space Transportation.

Ellwood is "optimistic" this will aid ongoing ESA/NASA discussions of commercial ATV ISS cargo supply. These have advanced to specifying the US agency's fuel and dry-cargo mix expectations "order of magnitude" procurement budget and cost estimation and related engineering issues.

Source: Flight International