ESA Chief Lauds Renewed U.S. Commitment to Space Station, Earth Science

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PARIS — The head of the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA) on Feb. 2 roundly endorsed the new direction U.S. President Barack Obama proposed for NASA, saying a firmer U.S. commitment to the international space station(ISS) and space-based Earth science would further tighten trans-Atlantic cooperation.

In an interview, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain also said his agency was ready to propose to NASA and the other space station partners — Russia, Japan and Canada — that China, India and South Korea be invited to join the station partnership.

“These three nations have been active in the multilateral discussion of future space exploration architecture,” Dordain said. “It seems that these three would be a good place to start widening the partnership. But this needs to be a collective decision by all the current partners.”

Dordain and other European government officials have long urged that the space station’s service life be extended at least to 2020, with a final retirement date decided only when it becomes clear that the orbital outpost is no longer worth the annual investment in operations and maintenance.

NASA’s proposed 2011 budget published Feb. 1 adopts that policy and reaffirms the U.S. focus on making maximum use of the station as a technology test bed and scientific laboratory.

Dordain said the station partners, who will meet in March in Japan, will now have a fresh incentive to consider ways to reduce the station’s annual cost. He said he has written to the heads of the partner agencies asking that cost reduction be placed on the agenda of the March meeting.

“It really didn’t make much sense to talk about cost reduction if we were going to shut down the station in 2015,” Dordain said. “With a perspective now of 2020 or later, we can seriously consider how to make more-efficient use of this unique infrastructure.”

Dordain declined to repeat what he said were intentionally provocative suggestions that one way to cut costs would be to reduce the station’s permanent six-member crew. He said this proposal, which was not well received by Europe’s astronaut corps, was made only to get people thinking about what could be done.

“The key point here is that one of the main cost items is sending so many kilograms of supplies to the station,” Dordain said. “What I am suggesting is that we look at developing systems to enable us to limit the number of kilograms we need to upload each year. One example could be ways to regenerate water on board. Money we save in launching Ariane 5 rockets with ATVs [Automated Transfer Vehicles] could be directed then toward more research at the station.”

To pay its share of station common operating costs that are borne by NASA as station prime contractor, ESA has agreed to launch cargo-carrying ATVs to the station once every 18 months. A second ATV is scheduled for launch later this year.

In releasing its 2011 budget proposal, NASA laid out a strategy and a budget forecast through 2015. The forecast would see spending on Earth science increase by nearly 61 percent between 2010 and 2015.

ESA reoriented its budget in the same direction several years ago. With financial contributions from the 27-nation European Union, ESA in 2010 is spending more on Earth observation than on any other area of interest, including launch vehicles.

Dordain said a renewed NASA focus on climate change and Earth observation should make it easier to forge trans-Atlantic partnerships, much in the way that the two agencies’ science programs regularly contribute to each other’s missions.

“We do this in a systematic way in space science, and the results of the collaboration — Cassini-Huygens [to Saturn and a Saturn moon], the Hubble Space Telescope and the future James Webb Space Telescope — are there for all to see,” Dordain said. “But for Earth science we have only an occasional cooperation. What I have talked about with [NASA Administrator] Charlie Bolden is the possibility of dividing up roles for future Earth observation missions.”

Bolden and other NASA officials have said the agency’s new direction will feature increased partnerships both with U.S. industry and with other governments. Dordain said he was surprised and pleased that Bolden saw fit to call him at dawn Washington time Feb. 1 to outline the NASA proposals.

In a Feb. 2 briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, Bolden said he called Anatoly Perminov, the head of Russia’s Roskosmos space agency, on Feb. 1 as well.