ISS Partners Laud Griffin but Wary of Shuttle Plans

by

The European and Japanese partners in the international space station fear that NASA Administrator Mike Griffin’s plan to retire the space shuttle in 2010 — no matter what the status of the station’s assembly — could leave some of the hardware they have already built gathering cobwebs on the ground, according to European government officials.

These officials, some of whom met Griffin for the first time here during the Paris air show, said they are anxiously awaiting the results of a NASA assessment that will estimate how much the remaining station assembly work the shuttle can perform by 2010. Griffin said that assessment should be completed by early July and will be presented to the Russian, European, Japanese and Canadian space-station partners at that time.

In a June 13 press briefing here, Griffin said the shuttle is incapable of doing the station-related work once expected of it and will be taken out of service in 2010. “This is a firm date,” Griffin said. But he also said NASA will fulfill its commitments under the intergovernmental treaty that established each partner’s rights and responsibilities.

Griffin refused to be pinned down on the number of station assembly and servicing flights that can reasonably be expected of the shuttle following two planned demonstration launches this year, the first of which is still set for July.

He repeated that the 28 planned shuttle missions to the station cannot be accomplished in the allotted time. He said the final figure could be more than 15, but cannot be determined now.

Europe and Japan each have built space station laboratories and other equipment that will require three shuttle launches to get all the pieces into orbit. When other shuttle missions needed for station assembly are added in, the vehicle’s flight manifest between 2006 and 2010 looks crowded, even if some of the labor is off-loaded to unmanned cargo-transport vessels.

“Mr. Griffin told me we needed to redo the sequence of station assembly and utilization that we all had agreed to in January,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, director-general of the European Space Agency. “He said that scenario is now out of date, and that a new scenario will be cleared by NASA and the U.S. administration by July. He is an engineer, and so am I, and as an engineer I appreciated that he was laying out a set of facts. But I also told him that I am working under an intergovernmental accord [signed by the station partners] and that I have no authority to modify that agreement.”

Dordain said in a June 16 interview that Europe and Japan to date have seen little for their investment in the station insofar as their showcase contributions — astronaut laboratories — have not been launched. Both laboratories were designed and manufactured to be fitted into the shuttle’s cargo bay, and the launch of both systems is part of the intergovernmental agreement.

Dordain said he could imagine a scenario in which NASA may be pressured to choose which laboratory element — Japanese or European — it will launch as the clock winds down on shuttle activity. “This would be a delicate situation, and I told [Griffin] that in my view, Europe and Japan are in a special situation that needs special consideration. Up to now, both have seen no benefit for their station investment.”

Germany and Italy are leading Europe’s space station participation.

Sigmar Wittig, chairman of the executive committee of the German Aerospace Center, DLR — Germany’s space agency — said he too liked Griffin’s engineer’s approach to the discussion. But Wittig said Germany is exasperated that the months of work that led to the January 2005 station-assembly agreement now must be scrapped.

“I got along quite well with Mr. Griffin,” Wittig said in a June 15 interview. “I think we all can understand the pressure he is under. But I don’t like to see changes to agreements at half-year frequencies. We need to settle on common goals for the station, even if it’s true that the U.S. has every right to determine its own priorities for space.”

Wittig said Griffin stressed that NASA is bound by U.S. President George W. Bush’s assurance that NASA would not renege on its commitments under the intergovernmental agreement, which has the force of a treaty obligation.

Sergio Vetrella, president of the Italian Space Agency, said Italy is worried not only about the launch of Europe’s Columbus space station laboratory, but also about an agreement between NASA and Italy on station utilization. Under this agreement, Italy agreed to provide space station logistics modules — cargo canisters carried to the station aboard the shuttle — in return for NASA-provided access to the station.

“We provided the logistics modules in return for use of the shuttle and the station,” Vetrella said. “By my rough count we are about $300 million behind in this arrangement and now we have to start from scratch in thinking about it.” Vetrella did not meet with Griffin here. He said he expects to be in the United States in the coming months for the shuttle’s return to flight or for the launch of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scheduled for August.