PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) has set a goal of reducing what it spends annually to run its international space station program by 5 percent through 2015 as it seeks to maximize the portion of its space station budget available for conducting scientific experiments on the orbiting laboratory, the agency’s station manager said. Bernardo Patti said the 18-nation ESA, like all the station partners — NASA, Russia, Japan and Canada — is looking for ways to cut spending on station operations without cutting into the facility’s scientific output.

The partners also are looking to use the station as a test bed for common technical standards that could reduce overall costs for future space exploration efforts by making it easier for different nations to contribute to a multilateral effort.

“If you look at the computer systems used on the U.S. part of the station now, and compare them to the computers on Europe’s station segment, the two are not the same,” Patti said in an interview April 27 following a meeting of station partners in Washington. “The station has been a giant Lego set, in which every partner can add its own pieces, except for certain common interfaces. That won’t work in the future. We are not going to all build separate exploration spacecraft for astronauts, for example.”

ESA is spending around 300 million euros ($435 million) per year on station operations. Patti said perhaps two-thirds of that is made up of costs that ESA will now look to reduce by 5 percent, or about 10 million euros this year alone.

“If we want to free up funding for other purposes, this is the kind of thing we need to do,” Patti said. “At least at the outset, it should be feasible. Whenever you do something for the first time, you approach it very conservatively. Once you get used to doing it, you see things that you realize are not necessary. You have 300 people doing something, and you see you can do it with fewer people.”

Patti said squeezing 5 percent out of the station program toward the end of the five-year period may not be possible, but that the policy impetus to find unnecessary spending will remain clear to program officials.

Assuming NASA completes two more shuttle launches by mid-2011 and retires the shuttle fleet, the station’s partners will be facing a new era in which cargo upload and download will be more difficult to secure, at least until a new fleet of vehicles is made ready. That may mean higher costs per kilogram of cargo — another reason to find savings in the current program’s annual maintenance charges.

The station partners are all faced with financial stresses of varying degrees and are trying to trim operations and make sure that the next stage in space exploration is done in a more coordinated and efficient way.

With station assembly complete, the partners will evaluate the potential for savings in “analysis, sparing, real-time operations, system engineering, maintenance, international integration, operations and utilization integration as well as safety,” NASA spokesman Joshua Buck said in an April 29 statement in response to Space News inquiries. “NASA’s goal is to reduce the annual operating cost of the station, and NASA has already made changes to station operations that have resulted in reduced routine and recurring station operating costs.”

While not considered a near-term cost saving, making station components more interoperable is viewed as indispensable for future space |exploration.

For example, Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo carrier docks to Russia’s section of the space station because its docking interface is compatible only with Russia’s. Russian and U.S. water at the station is treated separately because of different specifications as to its content.

The shuttle’s approaching retirement has provided NASA an incentive to develop a docking system that could be used by multiple vehicles. The NASA Docking System is expected to be available for a first installation at the station in 2014, Buck said.

NASA plans to replace the current Russian heritage Androgynous Peripheral Attach System with two copies of the NASA Docking System beginning around 2015 “to be available for docking with potential domestic commercial crew providers and other possible partner vehicles,” Buck said.

The station partners are working together on an international docking standard that will permit each nation to feed its industrial base while allowing multiple vehicles to dock with multiple other spacecraft if the station partners succeed in crafting a long-term exploration program. Patti said ESA currently views NASA as the most logical lead for such an exploration program.

Amy Svitak contributed to this report from Washington.



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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.