With Europe’s first Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) due to deliver supplies
to the international space station this fall, NASA has begun training U.S. civil servants to help trouble-shoot if needed during what is supposed to be a largely Russian-European operation.
Ordinarily, those problem-solving
duties would fall primarily
on NASA’s contractors. But U.S. export controls governing the exchange of technical data have complicated matters for NASA and its partners as they prepare for ATV’s debut
NASA asked the U.S. State Department in December for some space station-specific relief from U.S. International Traffic in Arms
regulations that govern many space-related products and services.
William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, reported some progress on that front, but said
the agency is still moving ahead what it described several months ago
as a feasible workaround – relying more heavily on civil-servant flight controllers who, under existing export rules
, can interact more freely with their non-U.S. counterparts.
“We are actually training civil servants as a workaround,” Gerstenmaier said following a May 17 presentation here before the Washington Space Business Roundtable. “It’s not truly training unique civil servants, but we are utilizing civil servants more than we would have … if we had some of these restrictions removed.”
presentation focused on the rationale for space exploration and the role the international space station is playing in helping the United States meet more outward-bound exploration goals. During a question and answer session, the space
flight chief was asked by the audience how export restrictions were
impacting NASA’s interactions with its space station partners.
He said the restrictions have grown more cumbersome since NASA and its many partners signed on to build the space station in the early 1990s.
“On space station, we tried to fix some of that at the beginning,” he said. “We got some ability to exchange data back and forth. But now it’s kind of crept back the other way. It’s getting restricted a little bit.”
said he understands the need for export control policies
designed to help the United States maintain a competitive advantage in militarily useful technologies
. But in some cases, he said, the rules
discussions about technologies that are “not all that big.”
On occasion, Gerstenmaier said, the rules cause “
problems between us and our international partners that are really more of a problem than the benefit we are gaining by having the …
restrictions in there,” he said.
The upcoming flight of ATV has put the issue into stark relief.
“One of the things that’s tough that’s coming up is the Automated Transfer Vehicle that’s getting ready to fly to space station this fall,” he said. “We have to be careful with how we exchange data with our partners on that, and that becomes somewhat of a problem especially as we are doing real-time operations. If a problem occurs on ATV, [it affects] how openly we can share data back and forth.”
NASA has been talking to the State Department about the issue, and mentioned that the U.S. Defense Department has some exemptions that might be a good model for the relief NASA is seeking.
“We have been talking to some folks at State about some things and we will see if we can do
some things there. [The Defense Department] has some ability to do some things differently than NASA does. We will see if it makes sense.”
made clear that any relief NASA might be granted would be limited in scope.
“It’s harder than it needs to be and we will see if we can get some of that stuff changed,” Gerstenmaier said. “I don’t think we will get big changes, but it will remove some of those specific things and make our lives easier.
Meanwhile, preparations for the space shuttle’s scheduled June 8 liftoff are progressing smoothly, according to Gerstenmaier. Space Shuttle Atlantis and a crew of six are due to deliver a new truss segment and additional solar arrays to the space station.
The mission, the first of the year, has been delayed since a severe thunderstorm in late February pelted the shuttle with golf-ball-sized hail, damaging the insulating foam on its
external fuel tank. All told, there were some 4,000 individual areas
requiring repair, Gerstenmaier said. That contrasts with 500 hail divots
requiring repair after Space Shuttle Discovery was caught in a thunderstorm while waiting to make its May 1999 flight to conduct the first docking to the then-fledgling international space station.