Contract Challenges Astrium To Reduce Station Operations Costs

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BREMEN, Germany — Astrium Space Transportation will manage operations of Europe’s share of the international space station under a two-year contract signed Dec. 13 with the European Space Agency (ESA) and valued at 233 million euros ($310 million).

The contract gives Astrium control over Europe’s preparation of experiments to be sent to the station, station hardware maintenance and astronaut training for missions related to European hardware and Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) unmanned supply ship.

The contract includes a provision that Astrium and ESA will agree on regular cost reductions so that, by 2020 — the current presumed end date for the station’s operational life — annual operations cost 30 percent less than today.

“These are not just efficiency cuts,” said Michael Menking, Astrium’s director of orbital systems and space exploration, in an interview after the contract signing. “We are talking about real reductions, and process changes.”

The 233 million euro contract covers 2011 through 2012. An authorization to proceed on the agreement was sealed in early 2011 following a meeting of ESA’s ruling council, permitting Astrium to continue its previous contract work for the station’s operations.

Thomas Reiter, ESA’s director of human spaceflight and operations, said the contract’s allocation for 2012 includes the first slice of price reductions that are expected to reach 30 percent by 2020.

In a press briefing here, Reiter said ESA governments expect to sign a longer-term contract with Astrium for future station operations when these governments meet in November 2012 to determine a multiyear program and budget.

ESA officials have said that many of the cost reductions will come from reducing the number of people now involved in managing the station from the ground. Menking estimated that, combining national station-user facilities, there are perhaps 500 people employed in the station’s operations and maintenance in Europe.

Control of Europe’s Columbus space station laboratory is handled from the German Space Operations Center operated by the German Aerospace Center in Oberpfaffenhofen. But it is Astrium’s job under the contract to determine, with ESA’s accord, the level of staffing necessary in the future.

Menking said some of the operating-cost savings expected in the coming years will be the result of investments made in new hardware. It is one reason, he said, that Astrium is pushing ESA to sign a contract for as long a period as possible.

“The longer, the better,” Menking said. “If we need to invest now to reap savings in the future, we need to know the contract’s terms. Obviously we do not make changes in operating systems without the approval of ESA.”

In addition to the costs of developing, installing and operating its experiments and its astronaut corps, ESA has an 8 percent stake in the station’s ownership that requires an annual contribution to pay the station’s common operating costs.

ESA and NASA, the station’s general contractor, have estimated these costs at about 150 million euros per year that ESA would owe NASA. Currently these charges are being paid by ESA through in-kind contributions to NASA, principally the ATV, which is the biggest cargo carrier now operational.

Beyond providing fuel, food, water and other supplies, the ATV is called on to push the station into a higher orbit. Residual atmosphere at the station’s operating altitude of about 400 kilometers causes the orbital complex to descend in altitude.

ATVs are scheduled to continue their cost-offset function through 2017. That leaves three years, or about 450 million euros, of station expenses that ESA will pay to NASA in a form that has not yet been decided.

ESA officials have opened discussions with NASA on possible Europe-built contributions to NASA’s space exploration effort that could be used to offset the station obligations. ESA has proposed that the ATV’s propulsion module, and perhaps a variant of the ATV vehicle, could be used by NASA for space exploration.

ESA and NASA have agreed to review possible barter hardware in September. Reiter said a firm idea of what would need to be built, and what it would cost, should be available by the time ESA governments meet in November.