BERLIN — A Franco-German working group is expected to report June 30 on whether the two nations can agree on how Europe should repay its future international space station debt to NASA.
If an agreement is reached, it is all but certain to be accepted by the 17 other member nations of the European Space Agency (ESA) when they meet in November in Italy to set ESA’s future budget and program direction.
The space station has been a bone of contention between France and Germany at previous ESA ministerial meetings, with the differences generally related to the fact that Germany has been more willing than France to invest in the station.
But France is Europe’s second-biggest station contributor after Germany. The third-largest contributor, Italy, faces severe government budget stress and has indicated that it may need to reduce its space station budget starting in 2016. ESA and European government officials say this makes it all the more important that France and Germany find common ground.
Europe operates its own habitable laboratory, Columbus, at the station and is responsible for paying NASA 8.3 percent of the station’s common operating costs. By common accord, that works out to about 150 million euros ($200 million) per year.
ESA has covered these charges so far by building and launching, aboard European Ariane 5 rockets, Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo ships that deliver food, fuel and other supplies to the station, and also boost the 390,000-kilogram station into higher orbit to compensate for the effects of atmospheric drag.
ESA’s five ATV vehicles — three have been launched, and the remaining two are set for launch in 2013 and 2014 — will take care of Europe’s operating-cost debt to NASA until 2017.
That leaves at least three years, or 450 million euros, in dues to be paid now that the station partners have agreed to operate the facility through 2020, and perhaps longer.
With the apparent backing of Italy, France has proposed that Europe build a robotic vehicle capable of maneuvering in low Earth orbit to perform an array of missions including the removal of dead satellites and rocket upper stages.
This vehicle, known as the Versatile Autonomous Concept (VAC), likely would cost far more than the 450 million euros Europe owes NASA. But French officials say it has the advantage of putting Europe at the forefront of new robotic technologies and would generate public enthusiasm.
NASA has proposed that Europe instead provide a propulsion module for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that the U.S. agency is building for missions beyond low Earth orbit.
ESA has suggested a compromise in which it furnishes the Orion propulsion unit as the “Barter Element” it owes NASA, but also begins early work on a VAC-type vehicle whose full development would not start for several years.
Johann-Dietrich Woerner, executive chairman of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, said in an interview here May 3 during an international space station utilization conference that there may be a way of combining the service module and VAC work.
Just providing the service module for Orion, Woerner said, “would be a dead end. Full stop. The problem is that the VAC, which is more interesting, cannot be used as the Barter Element because NASA does not accept it as such. Obviously a decision on the Barter Element has to have the approval of both ESA and NASA. I would accept it if NASA would accept it.”
Woerner noted that both the VAC and the Orion vehicle have no direct relation to the international space station, even if NASA has said Orion, designed for journeys beyond low Earth orbit, may visit the orbital facility.
Dale Thomas, associate technical director at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said there is a large amount of work to be done on the Orion propulsion module besides propulsion that has not yet been contracted by NASA.
Thomas told the Space Propulsion 2012 conference in Bordeaux, France, May 7 that the European work, if it is decided, could include power and thermal control systems as well.