he glitch-free all-automatic docking April 3 of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo carrier at the international space station culminates a $2 billion investment over more than a decade and could serve as the basis for the evolution of ATV for such things as
man-tended free-flying stations and relay points for Mars sample-return missions, European government officials said.


More immediately, the docking will permit the European Space Agency (ESA) to unblock some 250 million euros ($395
million) in funds for follow-on ATVs and related investment in Europe’s Columbus laboratory module. Columbus was attached to the station in February.


ESA administrators had frozen around 250 million euros in station-related spending for 2008 pending a successful ATV docking, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said in an April 3 interview.


Dordain said he needs no fresh authority to begin the expenditure; the trouble-free ATV arrival at the station and its smooth attachment to Russia’s Zvezda service module at the station’s aft end was enough to permit the station program to use the money starting April 4.


Daniel Sacotte, ESA’s director of human spaceflight, microgravity and exploration, said the fresh money will be used to complete the integration and testing of the second ATV vehicle, to be launched to the station in 2010. Additional hardware purchases for the third ATV, for launch in 2011-2012, also will be made, Sacotte said in an April 4 interview.


Europe owes NASA five ATV missions, including the inaugural flight, as part of its payment for use of the station’s resources.


The vehicle is designed to bring water, food and other supplies to the station.


In addition to its supply function, ATV will be used to push the nearly 300,000-kilogram orbital complex into a higher orbit, a function that is
needed regularly to compensate for atmospheric drag that pulls the infrastructure into a lower orbit.


Alberto Novelli, ATV operations manager, said in an April 3 interview that the Jules Verne ATV will perform the first of several station-re
boost maneuvers in April, with several more to follow before the vehicle is filled with garbage, undocked from the station in August and burned up over the South Pacific Ocean as it re-enters
the atmosphere.


For ESA managers, the timing of the Columbus and ATV launches offered several advantages, despite the fact that both vehicles are several years behind their initial schedules, as is the case with nearly everything else associated with the international space station.


ESA member governments are scheduled to meet in November to determine the agency’s long-term strategy in a two-day session that occurs about every three years.


With the agency’s space station investment now back on center stage, Dordain and Sacotte said they will attempt to nudge the agency’s governments in the direction of a long-term commitment to a manned presence in space.


Dordain said the ATV could serve as a staging area for Mars sample-return missions. Sacotte said ESA is likely to propose a gradual ramp
up of its efforts to become independent in sending
astronauts into orbit and returning them back to Earth.


“Now is the time to reflect on how to evolve the Ariane 5 vehicle, the ATV and our spaceport operations toward a mastery of manned flight,” Sacotte said, referring to Europe’s heavy-lift rocket, which launched the 19,000-kilogram ATV March 9, and the Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana.


NASA Administrator Michael Griffin seemed to anticipate further European development, saying after the ATV docking: “[T]he success of the ATV marks the arrival
of Europe as a full-fledged space power.”

Whether it is a coincidence of timing or otherwise, Russia’s willingness to collaborate with Europe on a future crew-carrying vehicle has increased sharply “in the past week or so” after two years of discussions that have gone nowhere. Sacotte said he remains hopeful that sufficient progress can be made on a bilateral relationship to be able to present something concrete to ESA governments at their November meeting.


“I think they take us a bit more seriously now,” Sacotte said of the Russian teams talking with ESA about joint development of a crew-carrying space vehicle. “But let’s also remember that without the Russians, we would not have the ATV today.”


It is Russia’s docking system, developed by a team at the Korolev, Russia-based RSC Energia led by the late Vladimir Syromiatnikov, that ATV uses.


ATV’s prime contractor, Astrium Space Transportation, had been given approval by ESA to negotiate the sale of ATV services to NASA for the period beginning with the U.S. space shuttle’s retirement in 2010.


Sacotte said that while Astrium and its co-contractors retain that right, the terms of commercializing ATV would depend on the nature of the sales. “Is this a purchase of a certain number of kilograms of upload capacity? Is it the purchase of an entire ATV including full use of the control center? I’m not backing off the idea, but we need to sort out these kinds of details,” Sacotte said.

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