WASHINGTON — A task force chartered by NASA last year to examine threats to the safety of the international space station has urged the U.S. State Department to immediately exempt some NASA contractors from International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) restrictions that are making it more difficult to get ready for the upcoming first flight of the Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV).

“The Department of State should grant immediate relief from the International Traffic in Arms Regulation restrictions in the form of an exemption to allow NASA contractors direct interaction with the International Space Station’s international partners and their contractors. This must be affected no later than summer 2007 to support Automated Transfer Vehicle operations” the International Space Station Independent Safety Task Force wrote in its final report, which was released Feb. 26 to Congress, NASA and the public. The task force, called for by Congress under the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, was chaired by former NASA space station program manager Tommy Holloway.

The European Space Agency expects to launch an ATV to the international space station as early as July. During the mission, the 20-ton unmanned cargo vehicle is expected to rendezvous and dock with the international space station. Current plans call for demonstrating ATV’s safety functions a safe distance away from the space station before sending it on in to dock on the Russian side of the orbital outpost. The ATV’s first flight to the space station is expected to require close coordination between the European Space Agency’s new mission control center in Toulouse, France, Russian flight controllers in Moscow and U.S. flight controllers in Houston.

The task force report points out that the two most recent demonstrations of new rendezvous technology did not go as planned: Japan’s Engineering Test Satellite required a month of on-orbit trouble-shooting before it successfully completed its rendezvous and NASA’s Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology, or DART, spacecraft mistakenly collided with its target.

“With no planned test flight and two instances where other automated rendezvous systems had initial performance problems, the ATV is scheduled to rendezvous and dock with the crewed [international space station] on its very first missions,” the task force report says. “Without first requiring a successful test flight, and given the complexities of the new [mission control center] in Toulouse, new flight controllers, the cultural and language differences among the three control centers of France, Russia and the United States, and U.S. Export Control/ITAR restrictions that limit data exchanges and conversations among technical integrators and operators; the plan to demonstrate safety functions during an actual rendezvous on the first mission is considered ambitious.”

The task force warns that if NASA contractors are not free to interact directly with their European and Russian colleagues, space station safety could suffer. “If some relief is not forthcoming in the [international space station] program, delays in critical capability, mission success, and potential loss of hardware are possible,” the report says.

The task force report also raised concerns about NASA’s ability to maintain the international space station after the space shuttle is retired in 2010. It urges the United States to make a firm commitment to conducting two dedicated space shuttle logistics flights currently penciled in for the end of space station assembly if time permits. The report says the two logistics flights are need “to ensure the long-term viability and, perhaps, survivability” of the space station.

The task force also said it was worried that the space station remains vulnerable to catastrophic damage for micrometeroid or other orbital debris impacts, citing a 9-percent chance that serious damage could occur within the next 10 years without more shielding.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, told the Senate Commerce space and aeronautics subcommittee during a Feb. 28 hearing on the agency’s budget issues, that NASA was “largely in consonance” with the task force’s recommendations concerning micrometeroid hazards.

NASA continues to add shielding to the space station during space shuttle assembly missions.

NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said Feb. 26 that agency officials would thoroughly evaluate the report’s findings and recommendations.