A pivotal year for expected space station life extension (SFN/Clark)

The future of the International Space Station will have to be decided this year to order new parts and supply ships in time to support an extension of the orbiting lab project through 2020, according to senior space officials. Discussions on extending the life of the outpost will be a major topic at the planned meeting between station partners in Tokyo this March. NASA is expected to receive direction from the White House on Monday extending station operations from 2015 until at least 2020.

The high-level Japan meeting will be the first major opportunity for the partners to discuss the extension after the budget’s release.

The station life extension will be a “significant part of what we talk about, but any agreements will depend on what the government allows us to do,” said Michael Suffredini, NASA’s space station program manager.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency President Keiji Tachikawa agrees the March summit will be a pivotal moment in the future of the space station.

“Operations are already planned through 2015, and it will soon be time to chart a course for 2016 and beyond,” Tachikawa wrote on the JAXA Web site last week. “I think the continuation of ISS operations will be one of our main topics at the next Heads of Agency [meeting], which will be held in Tokyo in March.”

The complex’s international partners are supportive of another five years for the station, but the five space agencies in the program must first resolve unanswered questions on funding, visiting spacecraft and replacement parts.

“There’s a likelihood that the partners will decide to extend the lifetime of the station up until 2020,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, head of the European Space Agency. “I think there’s real solidarity among the partners on the space station.”

Another topic may be the inclusion of new rising space powers in the space station’s future.

“There are currently five of us as partners on the station, but I think we can all get together to talk about the way in which we might extend that partnership to bring in others,” Dordain told reporters earlier this month.

Engineers are already comfortable the station is structurally strong enough to make it to 2020, and maybe even to the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first component of the complex in 1998.

“We’ve already started an effort to look at a life extension structurally speaking,” Suffredini said. “It’s the consensus of the engineers doing this work that we’ll be able to get to 2020, and perhaps even longer than that.”

The clock is ticking because NASA and other agencies need to procure new spacecraft and spare components for the station beyond 2015.

“By the end of this year, we’ll try to put a stake in the ground and determine for certain that we believe the structure will make it, and therefore all the other steps can take place, assuming that the partner agencies ultimately approve the extension of the life,” Suffredini said.

Suffredini said electrical batteries will be one of the first items needing replacement, plus other consumables and spare parts addressing the wear-and-tear of another five years of operations in space.

“Based on our assessment, we would have to something on contract probably by the end of this year,” Suffredini said.

The partners must also order more cargo freighters and piloted spacecraft to ferry equipment and residents to and from the station.

“All of us have to procure the next vehicles,” Suffredini said. “Our Russian counterparts need to procure Soyuzes and Progress vehicles, we would have to procure additional [commercial] vehicles.”

NASA has $3.5 billion in contracts for 20 commercial cargo delivery flights with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences through 2016. The companies are developing the Dragon and Cygnus spacecraft to launch on the new Falcon 9 and Taurus 2 rockets, respectively.

“There won’t be any way to extend it unless they contract for more cargo. I would assume that the current providers would be the logical choices for extension, but I’m sure there would be some type of competition for that,” said Frank Culbertson, senior vice president and deputy general manager of the advanced programs group at Orbital Sciences.

Both U.S. commercial providers plan their first operational cargo flights in 2011.

“You can’t maintain six people up there for the indefinite future without a steady stream of logistics. The U.S. side of that will be provided by commercial providers,” Culbertson said.

ESA and JAXA have already each flown their Automated Transfer Vehicle and H-2 Transfer Vehicle carrying logistics to the space station.

Four more ATV’s and six more HTV’s are slated to fly to the complex through the middle of the decade.

European and Japanese cargo flights are apportioned based on each agency’s share of the station’s operations costs and as repayment to NASA for shuttle launch services.

“The quid pro quo for the common systems operations costs, we’d have to go work that with JAXA and the Europeans to determine how much they would have to provide in return for the common systems operations costs for those 5 years, and that equates perhaps to additional vehicles they would have to provide,” Suffredini said. “And they need to turn on those contracts fairly soon, too.”

NASA will also have to work new deals with Russia to transport astronauts to the complex between 2012 and whenever a new U.S. system, most likely commercial, can take up the mantle for piloted missions.

Russia has already agreed to provide seats for U.S. and partner astronauts on Soyuz flights through 2012, but a new American rocket and spacecraft will probably not be ready until at least 2013, and possibly much later.

At $50 million per seat, the Soyuz will be the only route to the outpost for U.S. astronauts between this year and when a new spacecraft is declared operational.

“I suspect that by 2015, $50 million per seat will look like a cheap price,” Suffredini said.

Scientists will also be asked to propose a new series of experiments for the space station, including a renewed focus on climate research.

“I know, already, that there are a good 20 proposals that have been made that are worth looking at, regarding ways in which ISS could be used in the interests of data collection for climate change,” Dordain said. Climate science is also expected to be a key plank of the new NASA budget. “We really are trying to extend scientific utilization going beyond microgravity, which is the community that’s traditionally made use of it,” Dordain said.

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