Station Partners Approve ATV-2 Launch Delay

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PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) has secured approval from its international space station partners to delay the launch of the ATV-2 cargo carrier by two months, to mid-February, following ESA guarantees that there will be no more postponements caused by commercial concerns for Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium, government officials said Sept. 30.

ESA on Oct. 1 confirmed that the partners had agreed to a Feb. 15 ATV-2 launch date, with a docking on the Russian side of the international space station scheduled for Feb. 26. The U.S. space shuttle Endeavor is scheduled for launch toward the space station Feb. 26.

Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall in turn has promised ESA that even if a late-December launch of two telecommunications satellites is delayed for whatever reason, this commercial launch will be rescheduled for March, giving time for the ATV-2 to meet the Feb. 15 launch date.

The 20,000-kilogram Automated Transfer Vehicle delivers water and other supplies to the station. It is also needed to reboost the station into its operating orbit, a maneuver that NASA has said it wants to occur in March or April. ATV-2 is expected to remain docked to the station for about three and one-half months before undocking and then burning up during a controlled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere over the South Pacific Ocean.

NASA, as the station’s general contractor, had pushed for a December launch, government officials said. ESA officials, including ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, have clearly been uncomfortable in explaining the two-month delay.

The situation has been made more sensitive by the fact that a high-ranking German government official wrote his French counterpart expressing concerns about the issue. Peter Hintze, parliamentary state secretary in Germany’s Ministry of Economics, which has principal oversight authority over German space policy, wrote French Research Minister Valerie Pecresse in mid-September to communicate Germany’s displeasure, according to three officials familiar with the letter.

German industry is prime contractor for the ATV, although French industry had a prime design role. France is Europe’s principal backer of the Ariane rocket program. The diverging interests of Europe’s two biggest space powers — Germany investing in manned spaceflight tied to the United States, and France more focused on independent access to space via Arianespace — has been a recurring theme for more than 20 years as each has tried to pull ESA in its favored direction.

It is with this historical backdrop that the Franco-German tensions over the ATV-2’s delay should be seen, European government officials said.

Addressing an Arianespace cocktail reception Sept. 27, Le Gall sought to defuse the issue by promising that the ATV-2 flight in mid-February would not be interfered with, no matter what the consequences to Evry, France-based Arianespace’s commercial manifest.

Arianespace currently has planned the launch of six commercial telecommunications satellites on three heavy-lift Ariane 5 rockets for October, November and December. The requirements of an ATV launch force Arianespace to cease commercial operations for eight weeks before a planned ATV launch. Any delay in the late-December commercial mission will therefore oblige the flight’s two customers to wait until March for the next opportunity.