The space shuttle Atlantis – an iconic vehicle in the history of U.S. aerospace activity – lifted off on its last trip to the International Space Station (ISS), on July 8, closing an era of manned space flight for NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration).
The agency’s future is clouded by budgetary constraints and rising public worry over the cost and justification of new programs of space travel. Now the demise of the 30-year space shuttle program means that for the foreseeable future NASA will have to rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to continue shuttling its astronauts to the ISS, at a cost of more than $50 million a seat. Europe faces similar dependence on Moscow’s fleet.
NASA has said that it wants to rely on the private sector to mount future space programs. But there are also exploratory talks on cooperation with the European allies via ESA, the European Space Agency, which is their French-led multilateral version of NASA.
Reliance on Russia rankles in Western circles. John M. Logsdon, former director of the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said: “U.S. human space flight is not coming to an end, [but] it’s embarrassing that [astronauts] are going to ride on Russian taxis for a number of years.”
Industry veterans have also raised safety concerns over the reliability and safety of Soyuz spacecraft: in a letter to NASA administrator Charles Boden last month, several eminent astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, warned that the retiring the space shuttle would create an “unacceptable flight risk” because the multi-tasking U.S. shuttle is “the only spacecraft that can provide independent spacewalks for critical ISS repairs.”
In looking ahead until 2020, NASA is discussing a new spacecraft that could be built and launched in conjunction with the ESA. The Europeans have impressed their American counterparts with the success of the European fleet of orbital freighters that deliver supplies (but not people) to the ISS.
The ESA-built “Johanes Kepler,” the second of five in the series of Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV), recently completed a resupply mission. At 22 tons, the Kepler was the heaviest and most sophisticated spacecraft ever built in Europe. In its June mission it delivered technical equipment, supplies, and an orbital boost to the ISS (as well as serving for the disposal of 1.5 tons of waste). Its payload delivered, the one-way vehicle plunged toward Earth, burning up as planned as it re-entered the atmosphere.
The ESA has developed extensive industrial expertise of its own through production of the orbital freighters, but it has signaled tentative openness to collaborate with the Americans on a new spacecraft; this proposed vehicle would perform duties similar to those of the recently-decommissioned U.S. space shuttle, as well as incorporate technology used in the ATV.
ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said recently: “We shall work with [NASA] in a way that I can present in October a proposal on a new vehicle that in my view should be derived from the ATV, but which for the first time will be embedded into a common vision between NASA and ESA.”
The BBC indicated that one outcome of a possible transatlantic space initiative could be a European contribution to an American Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). This proposal, as envisioned by NASA, would entail a “manned ship that could take astronauts beyond the space station, to the Moon, asteroids and Mars.”
Building an MPCV, as proposed, has garnered support from both sides of the Atlantic. As reported earlier by the European Institute, under the Obama administration, NASA has struck a more euro-friendly tone in considering the now-uncertain future of US space exploration.
Nic Carter is an Editorial Assistant to European Affairs