PARIS – The heads of the space agencies building the international space station expressed renewed confidence in the U.S. space shuttle’s ability to launch frequently enough to permit a six-member crew at the orbital complex by mid 2009, with the principal European and Japanese laboratories to be launched in late 2007 or early 2008.


Meeting here Jan. 23, representatives of the U.S., Russian, European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies said doubts remain over whether the shuttle will make five launches this year. Several officials said they are counting on four, with the fifth launch, of the first of three elements of
‘s Kibo module, likely to slip into 2008.


But these officials also said the partners have weathered the doubts that followed the 2003 Challenger shuttle failure and are now more at ease with the schedule.


“After three and one-half years of very great difficulty … we have found a way to keep the space station going,” NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said in a press briefing held after the agency heads met. “We are now going to find a way to finish it, to staff it with a permanent crew of six as soon as possible, to complete this investment we have made as a partnership and to generate returns from it.”


Several officials pointed to still-unresolved issues that the station partners will have to confront sooner or later. Among these:


  • Doubling the station’s current crew to the long-planned six will test the limits of the station’s three functional docking ports and may require the construction of a fourth. “This will require investment, but we are not certain of how this will be done,” said Alexey Krasnov, director of manned spaceflight programs at
    ‘s Federal Space Agency, Roskosmos.
  • The shuttle’s retirement in 2010 will leave the station without a vehicle capable of returning science experimental hardware to Earth – at least until NASA’s Orion crew-transport carrier is operational in 2014. NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program could provide that capability but has yet to be proven.
  • The current NASA-Roskosmos agreement to assure continued flights to the station of Russia’s three-seat Soyuz capsules and the unmanned Progress supply capsules expires in 2009 and will need to be renewed. Anatoly Perminov, director of Roskosmos, said the issue “is rather complex” but that an agreement on continued Russian station servicing should be reached by the end of this year.


Meanwhile, the European Space Agency (ESA) expects to launch its first Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) unmanned resupply vessel to the station aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket in July or September, with ESA’s
laboratory to be launched by the
space shuttle in November.


But ESA officials say meeting the late-July launch date will be difficult because of continued testing of the ATV’s systems. A launch in September, however, will be challenging because of the heavy traffic planned then by the
space shuttle and Russian vehicles.


ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said the agency wants ATV launched before the
laboratory so that ESA does not have to pay cash to NASA for
‘s pro-rata share of the station’s resources.


Those payments begin when
is in service. The ATV’s delivery of supplies, water and fuel to the station is central to a barter arrangement in which ESA provides services instead of cash.


“I would have a hard time explaining to my delegations that we need to write a check to NASA for our share of the station’s operating costs because
is operational and the ATV is still on the ground,” Dordain said.


But if the shuttle stays close to its current schedule, this is what may happen. ESA officials say they would be equally embarrassed if they were forced to ask NASA for a delay in the
launch after years of lobbying to move
to the earliest possible slot in the shuttle’s manifest.
has been at NASA’s
undergoing preparations for launch since last May.


ESA’s problem is not only in writing a check to NASA, but in receiving its own station budget for 2008.


ESA governments in December 2005 said they would withhold the agency’s 2007 space station funding unless the space shuttle had conducted at least two successful flights in 2006. Three successful shuttle missions were flown in 2006, freeing up the 2007 budget.


But these governments also said that ESA’s 2008 station budget would be available only once the ATV has been successfully commissioned.


Daniel Sacotte, ESA’s director for human spaceflight, microgravity and exploration, said Jan. 24 that the agency will owe its share of station operations costs once
is operational, but that under the rules set down by ESA governments there will be no funds to use the laboratory until ATV has completed its first mission to the station.


“This is a situation that makes it all the more important that we launch ATV in July,” Sacotte said. “And if we miss the July date, we need to find a slot in what we know is a busy period at the station to permit us to launch in September.”