Shuttle diplomacy

Plans for a mini-space shuttle to ferry crew to and from the International Space Station will be unveiled to the station’s partners next month.

NASA is proposing that the new orbital spaceplane, which will partially replace theageing shuttle fleet, should also play a role as the station’s crew return vehicle in a bid to end a long-running dispute with ESA, Japan and Russia. The US agency is committed to providing the ISS with its own emergency lifeboat, or CRV, but the original plans were scrapped from its 2003 budget due to a lack of funds.

This sparked an angry response from its international partners who demanded that the agreements underpinning the station’s future be honoured.

NASA is hoping its plans for the mini-shuttle will solve two problems in one, by taking on the manned operations of the costly shuttle fleet, and meeting its responsibilities to the ISS.

Robert Mirelson, NASA chief spokesman, said the agency considers the mini-shuttle the best candidate for the CRV and plans to discuss it at the heads of agency meeting in Japan on 7 December.

‘We will certainly be talking about it, but we can’t formally propose it. Its budget hasn’t yet been approved by Congress and won’t be until January,’ he said.

However, ESA spokesman Franco Bonacina said this week that the agency had not been informed of the mini-shuttle plan. He said the partners were planning to discuss the issue of the CRV next month, but it was unlikely that a decision would be made.

The mini-shuttle would take 16-18 months to design and could be in service as soon as 2007, in line with the original timetable for the CRV. It will be based on the existing shuttle but will carry only a crew of 10 and be powered by expendable rockets.

NASA is confident the spaceplane could be tested as early as 2006. At the moment the existing shuttles and Russian Soyuz capsules are being used to get astronauts and cosmonauts back to Earth, but the agreement to use Soyuz ends in 2006.

The existing shuttle will continue to ferry supplies to the station, but could not be launched often enough to rotate the crew. Problems at a Russian launch pad in October, which threatened to delay Soyuz missions, led to reports that the station might have to be mothballed.

The decision to develop a crew-only shuttle followed a fundamental review of NASA’sobjectives and needs for the next five years. The agency had to rethink its plans because of President Bush’s overall federal government budget for 2003.

The outcome of the review, known as the Integrated Space Transportation Plan, has keeping the space station going and upgrading the shuttle fleet as its main focus. The need for further upgrades to the shuttles has become acute following last week’s discovery of fatigue cracks in Endeavour’s fuel tank supply pipes.