The international space station (ISS) has been fully operational only for a couple of years but given that it took a decade to complete it already “feels old,” in the words of one of its European sponsors.
The five station partners — the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada — have agreed to operate the orbital outpost until 2020 and hope that these remaining years will see a full harvest of science and technological research.
There is no consensus on what to do next in human spaceflight. A lunar colony, visits to asteroids or a further extension of the life of the current station are all being discussed. All five partners say that one of the most valuable products of the station has been the partnership itself — a coalition they hope to keep together on the way to everyone’s ultimate destination, which is Mars.
Alexey B. Krasnov, director of human spaceflight at the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has been Russia’s point man for the space station for over a decade and knows first-hand how hard the coalition, and the station, were to create and maintain. He spoke to Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding during a recent meeting of the station partners in Berlin.
The space station has been fully operational for a couple of years now. Is it appropriate yet to be concerned about the lack of scientific results?
There have been hundreds of results in many areas and I think all the partners would agree that this is the case. This is one reason why the partners have agreed to use the station until at least 2020.
In addition to the science, the station is a platform that allows us to learn about operating space structures, managing system failures in orbit and optimizing redundancies — all skills we will need no matter what the next destination is in exploration. I agree that these things are very difficult to count, however.
But the value of an infrastructure in low Earth orbit will remain for quite some time, especially in the medical and biological fields. Really we have only just scratched the surface of what we can do, even though we will have been working in low Earth orbit for 50 years in 2020. We don’t want to tell the scientists working on the station that we will be finished with it in 2020.
How about after 2020? What does Russia want to do?
It is an open question and there are no easy answers. Right now we have low Earth orbit and the ISS and we want to fully use it at least until 2020. The question is: Is there a role for low Earth orbit after 2020? Are there priority objectives we have that cannot be reached by 2020? The answer looks like yes.
Then the next question is whether governments should be using taxpayer money to achieve these goals. We have new capacities in industry and commercial vehicles that might be capable of taking over some of these responsibilities.
In this case low Earth orbit would be not so much like a hotel as an industrial research facility that is producing commercial spinoffs. Up to now it is governments that have played this role, but it will be difficult for governments to continue doing this while they also plan exploration beyond low Earth orbit. Even with partners it will be difficult for governments to do both.
I think it is fair to say that whatever infrastructure follows the international space station will not be as large as the current station. I would not exclude the possibility of the next facility being man-tended, a free-flyer that can be a kind of placeholder. But the size of the current ISS will not be needed for the next-generation station.
Does Russia have a preferred goal beyond low Earth orbit?
There are multiple options and we have not settled on one. We acknowledge that there can be diverse paths toward the top. There are some very interesting things we can do on the Moon. There are Lagrange points and asteroids. For us the very top of the pyramid is Mars. The ISS can be useful for future exploration no matter what the destination.
Does the station’s hardware become unsafe after around 2020?
What we know is that most of the hardware could be flown until 2028. But it would need to be recertified, and recertification costs money and requires that we maintain a specific backlog of spare parts. Certainly this is technically doable.
We have asked the partners to give us some idea of their intentions by 2014.
Why so soon?
It is early, but here’s why we need it. I have a 10-year plan that needs to be approved for 2015-2025 and if we agree to recertify the station’s hardware to have it operate to 2028 I will need to take account of that in this 10-year budget plan.
We don’t need firm commitments then, but we need indications of what the partners want to do. We know this deadline might create some difficulties for our partners. We understand this. But we have to have some idea of what we are going to do for this 10-year budget.
Nearer-term, the United States and Europe agree that only two more Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo-transport vehicles will be built for the station. The last one will fly in 2014 and production is being shut down. Is that a problem for the station?
We do have an issue here. Not only is the ATV the only current vehicle that can guide the station into the atmosphere at the end of its life, it is also capable of delivering fuel to the station. When ATV is retired only the Russian Progress vehicle will be able to do that.
Do you regret that the decision was made in Europe and at NASA to end their barter agreement on ATV with the fifth model?
Each agency has a right to make its own decisions and we do not question that.
Is it Russia’s position that figuring out how to replace the ATV is NASA’s problem?
That’s not the way the partnership works. Legally of course, NASA is the station’s integrator and coordinator for its technical capabilities. But a problem for the station is a problem for the partners. We don’t just sit back and say, “OK NASA, it’s your job to deal with this.” There may be new vehicles in the coming years, and we hope commercial vehicles can play a role in station resupply.
There has been regular questioning of the station’s value in Europe and the United States, and recently the Japanese delegation said Japan wanted to reduce the station’s operating costs. Does this sentiment exist in Russia?
There has been a sharp increase in the budget for civil space research in Russia in the past few years and this increase has benefited human spaceflight activities. Our budget is about $1 billion a year now for ISS and other work related to human spaceflight. It has been a spectacular increase.
Should the current station partnership be expanded to other nations — China, India, Brazil and so on?
This is something that can be discussed. But there is no need to make an immediate decision on this. There is no urgency, and I should say here that, to my knowledge, China has not applied to be a member of the partnership.