he successful docking April 3 of Europe’s first Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), the Jules Verne, with the international space station marks the availability of an important new capability that will be indispensable after the space shuttle retires around 2010.


First off, congratulations are in order to the European Space Agency (ESA) and its ATV prime contactor, Astrium Space Transportation, for the flawless docking, which was executed after the cargo-laden, 19,000-kilogram craft was put through a series of maneuvers to demonstrate that its approach did not pose a threat to the station or its crew. Along with the Columbus laboratory module, which was successfully attached to the international orbital facility in February, the ATV represents Europe’s coming of age on large-scale space infrastructure projects.


Perhaps more so than Columbus, the ATV demonstrates Europe’s potential to take on an even bigger role in the future, and not only on the space station.
ESA officials envision using the ATV
as a way station for a Mars sample return mission, or as a steppingstone to an independent human spaceflight capability.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin summed up the significance of the docking, saying it marks Europe’s arrival as a “full-fledged space power.”


The question now is how ESA can maximize the potential of its $2 billion investment in the ATV. The agency is obligated to conduct four more ATV missions to the space station as part of a barter arrangement under which it gets access to power and other services associated with the orbital outpost, including crew transportation. ESA anticipates conducting ATV missions at roughly 18-month intervals over the space station’s lifetime.


NASA, meanwhile, faces what is optimistically estimated as a five-year gap between the space shuttle’s retirement and the debut of its replacement, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. During that period the space station partners will be entirely dependent on Russian Soyuz capsules to deliver crews to and from the facility and heavily dependent on Russian Progress ships for cargo services.


The need for Progress vehicles can be offset to some extent if NASA is successful in nurturing a space station logistics service via its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.
But that
is a big if: NASA last year terminated one its agreements under the program because its industry partner, Rocketplane Kistler, was unable to keep its end of the bargain; more recently, the agency had to renegotiate its deal with another participant, Space Exploration Technologies, to accommodate flight-demonstration schedule delays.


With the ATV having proven itself, the space station partners have a viable alternative. This not only will strengthen NASA’s bargaining position in negotiations for Progress flights beyond 2011, when the agency’s current deal with Russia expires, it is good to have in its own right. The ATV can carry far more mass than Progress or Orion, the latter of which is intended primarily for crew transportation.


In addition, the ATV is capable of raising the space station’s altitude, something that must be done periodically to compensate for the atmospheric drag that gradually lowers the facility’s orbit. The ATV also is the only vehicle capable of steering the space station to a controlled, destructive atmospheric re-entry over the Pacific Ocean, an important function for the now massive orbital outpost.


Given the time it takes to manufacture an ATV, which has been described as the most complex piece of space hardware ever built in Europe, the space station partners should be consulting now, at least informally, to determine what portion of the orbiting laboratory’s future cargo-transportation needs could be met with the European vehicle and at what cost. Even if the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program produces a viable vehicle

or two

and even taking into account the space station’s murky future beyond 2015, it is not difficult to envision that more ATVs will be needed at some point beyond
the four
currently planned.


also is the time for NASA, ESA and the rest of the spacefaring world to start thinking about how the ATV can be leveraged for other missions. As NASA plans for a multibillion-dollar Mars sample return mission around 2020, for example, it should carefully examine whether the ATV can reduce the cost and risk associated with that undertaking. The same goes for U.S. plans to return astronauts to the Moon.


This is not to declare up front that the ATV is suited to these roles, or that its inclusion should be a mission-design requirement. But the ATV’s flawless debut marks the availability of a new piece of civil space infrastructure with tremendous potential; it would be foolish not to take advantage.