While NASA could land astronauts on the Moon by 2018 without the international space station (ISS), the orbital outpost has a critical role to play in laying the groundwork for long-duration lunar stays and eventual human missions to Mars, according to a newly released National Research Council (NRC) report. But the international space station’s potential for supporting such long-duration human missions cannot be realized without more astronauts onboard pursuing a robust research agenda closely tied to NASA’s manned space exploration goals, the report says.

“Although it seems unlikely that ISS needs to play a critical role in support of lunar sorties, the panel concluded that it provides an essential platform for research and technology testing in support of long-term human exploration, including lunar outpost missions and, most especially, the human exploration of Mars. Indeed, it is uncertain whether the risks involved in sending humans on long-term exploration missions can be mitigated to acceptable levels without precursor experimentation and testing aboard the ISS,” concluded the 50-page report “Review of NASA Plans for the International Space Station.”

The report, released Nov. 28, presents the findings of a 14-member panel originally chartered at NASA’s request to review the results of an ISS strategic planning activity initiated in 2004 by then NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe.

Panel members included scientists with backgrounds in space-based research, two former astronauts and one former senior NASA official, Tommy Holloway, who retired from NASA in 2002 as manager of the ISS Program Office at Johnson Space Center, Houston.

The panel met once, in early October, to hear NASA’s latest plans for the international space station, including the results of three studies initiated by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin since he took the administrator’s job in April. Those studies were:

– The Exploration Systems Architecture Study, which guided NASA’s chosen path back to the Moon;

– The Shuttle/Station Configuration Options Team report, which drove NASA to cut its space shuttle manifest back to 19 flights; and

– A zero-based review of ISS research, which refocused the station’s science agenda away from basic research to knocking down barriers to human space exploration.

Panel chair Mary Jane Osborn, a professor with the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington , said the panel concluded that ISS utilization is important to human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, particularly for future missions to Mars.

However, panel members concluded that the space station’s current crew size limitations and the absence of an integrated plan for using the station to support NASA’s human space exploration goals are barriers that must be overcome if the station is to fulfill its potential.

“It’s very vital indeed since otherwise, you don’t really know what you’re doing,” Osborn said of an integrated ISS plan, adding that increasing station crew size would be a boon for scientific research. “It would allow a significant improvement.”

The space station has been limited to two-person crews since the February 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident. Three-person expeditions are set to resume in 2006 with the next space shuttle launch.

Concluding that even three-person crews are inadequate for conducting meaningful research aboard the station, the panel recommended that NASA “give top priority” to enabling six-person crews by 2008.

“[N]either time for necessary research and testing, nor the number of available volunteers for human experimentation, can be supported by a three person crew, much less the current reduced number of two,” the report states. “Completion of ISS research and testing essential for human missions to Mars and beyond will require a full six person crew to enable astronauts to give adequate time and effort to these activities.”

NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said Nov. 30 that NASA still plans to put a six-person crew aboard the station. “When that will happen is still being worked out, but around 2009 is being discussed,” he said.

Beutel said that before the space station crew size can be expanded, the ISS needs a more robust life support system and onboard escape systems capable of getting six crew members back to Earth in an emergency.

NASA hopes to have the developmental Environmental Control and Life Support System “up and running in the next several years” either as an addition to the U.S. Destiny Laboratory or as part of the Node 3 module “if we fly it,” Beutel said.

A six-person crew rescue capability could be provided in the relatively near term by keeping two Russian Soyuz capsules always docked at the station.

While NASA says it supports expanded crew size, the agency has been pushing back an attempt by Congress to mandate six-person crews. In a letter to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas ) in mid-November, Griffin requested that language requiring six-person crews be dropped from a NASA authorization bill nearing final approval.

“It is NASA’s desire to increase crew size, but a technical solution that is legislatively mandated could leave the Nation with a less capable Station, and may not be safely achievable until assembly is completed and potential commercial cargo and crew transfer vehicles, or the [Crew Exploration Vehicle], are operational,” Griffin wrote in the Nov. 10 letter to the chairwoman of the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee.

The panel also expressed concern about NASA’s ability to complete the space station before the shuttle retires in 2010 and urged NASA to develop a back-up plan for completing the space station without the help of the shuttle. The panel also said it lacked confidence in the agency’s plans for supporting the outpost in the post-shuttle era.

“Given that shuttle flights are being delayed and that each future shuttle flight schedule is unsure, it is possible that the planned ISS configuration will not be completed by 2010, putting the ISS exploration objectives at risk,” the report states. “It appears that there are no plans to provide a back-up alternative to the shuttle launch of ISS structural components and research modules, if the shuttle does not complete this process by 2010.”

NASA says it intends to conduct 18 more shuttle flights to the space station before the end of 2010. Those 18 flights, NASA says, would permit the launch of all major remaining space station components with the exception of the Japanese-built Centrifuge Accommodation Module and the Russian-built Science Power Platform.

Beutel said NASA officials had received the panel’s report and were still reviewing the findings and recommendations.

“We do believe that our 2007 budget will address the overall plans for completing the space station, including our objectives and obligations to our international partners,” Beutel said. NASA’s 2007 budget request, still being hammered out with the White House Office of Management and Budget, is due for release in February.

It remains to be seen how NASA’s 2007 request and accompanying five-year budget plan deals with the $5 billion-plus shortfall facing the space shuttle program.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...