US drops Shuttle diplomacy

Disagreement over a possible war with Iraq, technical problems with the Ariane rocket and recent budget cuts mean Europe is unlikely to play any part in NASA’s programme to replace the space shuttle.

Following last Saturday’s loss of Columbia, the oldest space shuttle in NASA’s fleet,President Bush has pledged that manned space flight should continue.

But with a shuttle fleet based on 1970s technology, former astronauts have recommended the rapid development of the new Orbital Space Plane (OSP), which would also act as the crew return vehicle for the International Space Station.

One option open to NASA is the $300m (£193 m) X-37 flight demonstrator craft, which is being developed by Boeing’s Phantom Works.

NASA’s previous programmes to develop shuttle replacements, the X-33 project and the Space launch Initiative have all suffered budget cuts. But following the Columbia disaster veteran astronauts such as Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt, the lunar module pilot on the Apollo 17 mission, are calling for renewed investment.

‘I suspect this tragedy will add new impetus to the OSP, more than likely changing its direction to become not just a rescue vehicle [for the ISS] but also a space access vehicle,’ he said.

NASA announced plans to develop the shuttle replacement last November, and European countries were quick to contact the US government over possible co-operation.

A senior source close to the leadership of the congressional science committee, whichoversees NASA and its budget, said France and Germany have already made tentative approaches regarding the OSP. But he said US anger at recent European criticism over its confrontation with Iraq made it unlikely their approaches would receive any support in Congress or the Senate.

‘I know the Europeans have been starting to lobby to get a hand in the OSP. To be brutally honest, and I’ve been saying this to other European folks in town, namely the French and the Germans, their political leadership back in their capitals have not endeared them to this administration,’ he said.

‘They look down their nose and sneer at us for geopolitical decisions we’re making and then they come with hat in hand and say, ‘oh, we want to take part in your programme’. That’s not good politics.’

The US also believes that Europe has neither the money nor the technical credibility to be full partners, following recent EU space budget cuts and the difficulties with the Ariane heavy lift vehicle. The next generation Ariane launcher, which exploded recently on its maiden flight, was originally designed as a carrier for the French-designed Hermes, an OSP-type space plane. This led some in the US to question whether Europe has the technical ability to develop a shuttle replacement.

The OSP will cost billions to develop, with an as yet unapproved NASA budget for the next two years of around $1bn (£600m). But as well as the huge financial boost the member nations of the European Space Agency would gain from taking part in the project, they would also benefit technologically. NASA’s knowledge of launch vehicles far outstrips the European nations, who have so far only launched robot planetary probes and satellites.

The broad specifications for the spaceplane will be announced later this month. These will include the payload and in-orbit duration capability, the landing method and the specifications of the runway that might be needed. The final design is expected to be approved in 2004.

European space agencies may have believed that they stood a chance of taking part in the project, as it is widely known in Washington that the involvement of international partners made it harder for the US Congress to cancel the ISS. ESA also collaborated with NASA on the original crew return vehicle before President Bush cancelled it. But hopes of further collaboration now look dashed.

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