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Europe seeks greater role in NASA's exploration missions

Posted: July 26, 2011

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The European Space Agency wants to take on a major task in NASA's future space exploration plans, proposing to combine parts of Europe's existing space station freighter with the U.S. Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle for human voyages into deep space.

File photo of ESA's Automated Transfer Vehicle approaching the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
The talks are focused on potentially modifying portions of Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle to travel beyond low Earth orbit with NASA's next exploration capsule named the MPCV.

"Our interest is firstly to capitalize on what we have already developed," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA's director general. "The ATV is a major development for Europe."

Under one popular scenario among some European space leaders, the ATV's powerful service module could be attached to NASA's MPCV, or Orion, capsule for crewed expeditions to the International Space Station, asteroids, the moon, Mars and a number of other destinations.

The service module includes a network of computers and avionics, four large thrusters, propellant tanks, and the ATV's power generation system with four solar array wings.

The opportunity for Europe to propose a significant contribution to NASA's exploration goals arose with the decision to extend to life of the space station until 2020. Instead of paying its 8 percent share of the lab's common operating costs in cash, Europe bartered with NASA with five robotic ATV missions to resupply the station through 2014.

But the barter agreement expires after 2017, and ESA has no plans to build additional ATVs beyond the five vehicles already on the books, according to Thomas Reiter, the space agency's director of human spaceflight.

The first two ATV missions are already complete, successfully delivering food, clothing, computers, experiments, spare parts and other gear on flights in 2008 and 2011. The massive spacecraft weigh more than 40,000 pounds at liftoff and approach the space station on a laser-guided autopilot system.

The ATVs are built by EADS Astrium in Bremen, Germany.

"That gives us a very interesting opportunity, not only to barter our operating costs of the station for the second half of this decade, but also gives the perspective for advancing technology, most likely centered on an ATV derivative, for an application that goes beyond low Earth orbit," Reiter said.

Reiter said he expects around 450 million euros, or about $650 million, will be available to start development of a follow-on ATV craft for NASA to cover three years of operations costs from 2017 until 2020. If the space station's life is extended beyond 2020, further money would be available to mature the ATV-derived system.

ESA is lobbying to be a major contributor to an international space exploration effort, not just to provide piece parts or smaller components.

"We would, of course, prefer a barter element that is really a system, not a subsystem, at least where we're not just delivering components," Reiter said.

The 450 million euros in funding was tentatively approved in a meeting of ESA member states in March, in which representatives from European nations agreed to extend the continent's participation in the space station program.

"We think with this size of a program, we can find an element that is of interest to NASA as well as it can help move European industry in the direction of exploration," Reiter said.

According to Reiter, engineers are completing studies of a hardened version of the ATV to bring equipment from the space station back to Earth. Once the studies are finished, Reiter said the Advanced Re-entry Vehicle concept will go into a dormant mode.

Artist's concept of the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle at Mars. Credit: NASA
Dordain said he started discussing the next-generation ATV-based contribution with NASA in May.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, characterized the negotiations as "preliminary" but said the United States could come to an agreement with ESA on cooperation on missions beyond low Earth orbit this fall.

ESA may need to await formal approval of any new project at the next meeting of its governing body in late 2012.

"We know there will be a time after ISS," Reiter said. "There will be human exploration going beyond low Earth orbit. And in this respect, I think it's the perfect time to make developments at least as a step in this direction. It would be not only focused on serving the ISS, it would go beyond low Earth orbit."

Besides developing the ATV from scratch, European companies also constructed four habitable rooms aboard the space station, a glass-covered cupola yielding unparalleled views outside the complex and two logistics modules to ferry supplies on space shuttle missions.

Lockheed Martin Corp. is building the Orion/MPCV spacecraft under a contract to NASA that also includes the development of a service module. But most of the company's current work involves the crew module, where at least four astronauts would ride to and from space.

The first Orion ground test article is undergoing testing now, and Lockheed Martin officials say it could be ready for an unmanned test flight by 2013. But that assumes there is a rocket to launch the spacecraft.

NASA's Space Launch System, the heavy-lift rocket necessary for daring deep space expeditions, is mired in budget uncertainty and may not be ready to launch astronauts until the 2020s, according to statements by top NASA officials.

The negotiations between NASA and ESA involve technical and political considerations. The space agencies, together with other nations, are plotting a global exploration strategy in an international working group.

"This is really the starting point for our discussions, and then we will see how we're going to converge," Dordain said. "We should converge toward the fall this year, possibly not on a single vehicle but at least towards one module that would make it possible to then have some derivatives in the future."

Dordain stressed the importance of a coordinated transportation policy for any future space exploration efforts, saying the International Space Station is plagued by an oversaturation of cargo servicing vehicles and a lack of crew transportation options in the wake of the space shuttle's retirement.

"NASA made the decision to put an end to the shuttle program," Dordain said. "The Europeans made the unilateral decision to develop the ATV. The Japanese made the unilateral decision to develop the [H-2 Transfer Vehicle]. It is anarchy really. Let's be clear about it. Everyone developed systems on the basis of their own needs without any discussion among partners on what we actually collectively needed."