Crews control

Europe’s new supply vessel for the International Space Station could mean a return to a three-man crew if the space shuttle fleet is grounded in the long term.

The European Space Agency’s automated transfer vehicle (ATV), to be launched in September 2004, could provide supplies that would previously have been carried by the shuttle.

Following the Columbia disaster the ISS partners agreed to cut the crew from three to two. This is because the shuttle fleet is not expected to fly until at least this autumn, reducing the station’s supplies. But the reusable space plane could be delayed for up to another 18 months.

Manuel Valls, head of the programme integration department within the manned space flight directorate at ESA, is confident that the ATV could return the ISS crew complement to three.

‘The first ATV launch is in September next year and that will supply the ISS. Currently we are looking at bringing forward subsequent ATV launches. With those we could have a crew of three.’

The ATV would be launched by an Ariane 5 rocket. The 10-tonne, 9m cylinder that can deploy solar panels will take off from Kourou in French Guiana. It will navigate itself to the station, 400km above the Earth over three days, and will remain docked for up to six months.

Because of the loss of the shuttle, two extra Russian missions to the ISS will be required over the next two years. Reports of Russia asking ESA for money to build the vehicles for them were refuted by Valls.

However, because of the Columbia tragedy, ESA has already agreed to shift its manned missions. The one planned for April has been shelved, and will go ahead in October, while the original October mission will be next spring.

While Soyuz flights are rearranged for the immediate future congressman Nick Lampson has put forward a bill to allow NASA to buy Russian space technology. This would enable the ISS to keep going in the event of long-term shuttle flight suspension. The bill is currently with the US congressional science committee for review.

Until now there has been a ban on NASA payments to the Russian space programme, beyond existing agreements. Lampson’s bill would enable legal exceptions such as ‘maintaining the space station programme’.

The ISS project has already been criticised for not doing enough research with a crew of three. A future with no more crew members than were on board Russia’s now de-orbited Mir space station would be a heavy blow to the international prestige project.