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Space station partners assess logistics needs beyond 2015

Posted: December 1, 2009

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Space officials in Europe and Japan are considering plans to build and launch additional indigenous cargo ships to the International Space Station if the program is extended beyond 2015.

Japan's HTV spacecraft departs the space station in October. Credit: NASA
Although NASA has only budgeted for station operations until 2015, the independent Augustine commission recommended continuing the program through at least 2020.

"The Augustine commission made that recommendation, so we're waiting for our government as well as the governments of the other agencies, who have a great interest in seeing the extension of the International Space Station program, to get maximum use of their modules extended beyond 2015," said John Uri, NASA's lead scientist for the station.

If the station's life is extended, more cargo missions will be necessary to serve logistics needs for crews aboard the outpost, according to Bernardo Patti, ESA's space station program manager.

"It's clear from the Augustine commission that they want the station extended beyond 2015," Patti said. "That would require more logistics services for ISS."

Four more flights of the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle are planned through 2015. Six more Japanese H-2 Transfer Vehicle missions are also on tap through the rest of the station program.

"We may have more (ATVs) after that," Patti said. "It just depends on how long the station is operating and its needs."

Japanese officials may also ask for funding to fly extra HTVs to the station, but their request may face steeper opposition.

"We hope to increase the budget for the researchers and also the H-2B and HTV for the future of our space missions. Right now, we are discussing in the Japanese government about the future plan of our next generation for future exploration and also the ISS extension," said Naoki Nagai, deputy director of the Japanese space agency's Houston office.

A Japanese government panel has singled out the country's space program for potential budget cuts. The Government Revitalization Unit spent more than a week screening budget requests of Japanese government agencies and advised reducing funding by 10 percent for the HTV program.

The tight budget environment could make it difficult for Japanese space officials to expand the agency's mission portfolio, including adding more HTV missions or upgrading the spacecraft.

The unit price tag for each HTV is around $200 million, excluding the cost of the H-2B rocket. An ATV spacecraft costs about $300 million, not including the Ariane 5 rocket or mission costs.

The ATV spacecraft on its maiden flight in March 2008. Credit: NASA
Patti said he hopes more ATV spacecraft can be procured if the station operates past 2015. A senior-level meeting of representatives from ESA member states is scheduled for late 2010 to set the agency's budget priorities for the next few years.

"We will ask for more funding for additional ATVs if that happens," Patti said.

ESA is already studying modifying the ATV with a heat shield to return equipment from the space station. Next year's Ministerial Council meeting could also decide whether to implement such a program.

ATV cargo ships are manufactured by EADS Astrium in Bremen, Germany. The HTV spacecraft is built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

The European and Japanese ships have each flown to the station once, completing highly successful maiden flights to test out their designs and deliver supplies to the complex.

The ATV and HTV can haul food, water, air, propellants, spare parts and science experiments to the space station.

More Russian Progress freighters and U.S. commercial supply flights would also be likely if station activities continue until 2020.