European To Make Long-Duration ISS Visit

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Veteran European astronaut Thomas Reiter will spend six or seven months at the international space station starting this summer following a contractual agreement between the Russian and European space agencies and the approval of NASA, which will carry Reiter to and from the orbital complex aboard the U.S. space shuttle, European and Russian officials said.

Reiter’s mission — the first for a German national aboard the international space station — was approved following negotiations between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roskosmos.

Under the agreement, ESA is paying some 20 million euros ($26 million) in cash to Roskosmos, and will provide room for Russian station equipment aboard ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) space tug, scheduled to make regular visits to the station starting in 2006. The total value of the contract, including the ATV-related services, is about 30 million euros.

While on board, Reiter’s formal status will be that of a Russian cosmonaut, and it is under that heading that he has been approved for launch aboard a U.S. space shuttle tentatively scheduled for launch in July. The launch date will depend heavily on when the shuttle makes its return to flight after the February 2003 Columbia failure.

NASA and Roskosmos have an agreement that covers launches of Russian cosmonauts to the station. Russia is using this agreement to place Reiter aboard the shuttle.

Michel Tognini, head of ESA’s astronaut corps, based in Cologne, Germany, said ESA has been negotiating for a long-duration flight since early 2004. The agency has organized several so-called “taxi” flights of its astronauts to the station, but these are less than two weeks in duration — insufficient for many of the experiments ESA wants to conduct, Tognini said April 28.

ESA’s Columbus space station laboratory is several years behind schedule, due in part to the grounding of the shuttle, and will not be launched before late 2006 or 2007. The agency in the meantime has been searching for ways to give its ground teams and astronauts the kind of work they will need to perform once Columbus is operational.

Tognini also said Reiter’s presence as the third astronaut aboard the station for six months once the shuttle leaves will double the amount of experiments that a two-person crew could conduct.

“The amount of maintenance astronauts need to perform on the station means that there is not enough science being done if only two are there,” Tognini said. “When you add a third person, you double the science you can do. Reiter’s presence will be highly appreciated by all the space station partners.”

Tognini said Reiter will conduct a science program designed mainly by Russian teams. But he will also perform a suite of ESA experiments.

Reiter spent 179 days in orbit in 1995 aboard Russia’s Mir space station, then flying as an ESA astronaut.