With its contributions to the International Space Station, Europe is participating in the biggest joint international project ever undertaken. The ISS could also have major implications for its own space ambitions.
More than just a scientific utopia?
Critics have dismissed the ISS as a "trailer park in the sky," and politicians have bickered over its soaring price tag. But the space station has been a major diplomatic coup for Europe, Russia, the United States and the rest of their international partners. Despite differences over the war in Iraq and, before that, the bombing of Yugoslavia, work contined on the space station unabated. Never before have astronauts, engineers, scientists and politicians from so many countries worked together on such an enormous and peaceful undertaking.
With the launch next year of its Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and the Columbus Research Module a year later, Europe will dramatically increase its participation in the space project.
"We are presently at a very decisive stage in Europe because we are about to finalize our major contributions to the space station," Jörg Feustel-Büechl, director of human spaceflight for the European Space Agency (ESA) told DW-WORLD.
The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) will enable ESA to transport payloads to ISS. It makes its maiden voyage in Sept. 2004.
Europe is a major partner in the ISS program, with Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland together contributing about €8 billion of the project's estimated €100 billion cost. Columbus and the ATV (illustration), which will shuttle supplies to the ISS and ferry rubbish away from it, form the core of Europe's ISS contributions. The space station also serves as the basis of Europe's manned spaceflight program -- since it's christening in 2000, ESA has sent seven astronauts to the ISS.
Old technology paves way for new diplomacy
The space station has had its share of problems. Critics have lambasted the outmoded technology on the ISS. "The international space station is yesterday's technology," Robert Park, a physicist at the Unviersity of Maryland told Congress recently. "Another 10 years of urine assays on a space station is not going to tell us much we don't already know."
But proponants note that the station marks an important chapter in post-Cold War history and scientists still have a lot they can learn from it.
"The space station is the largest endeavor ever undertaken by the United States, Europe, Russia, Japan and Canada," said Günther Brandt, head of space station elements at EADS Space Transportation in Bremen. "Such a large project was never undertaken before. By working together, we will be able to do even bigger things in the future. From a scientific perspective, it will be a unique facility that could be open to the participation of all the scientists of the world."
Questions about the future
In recent months, however, that uptopian scientific vision has been imperiled. After the tragic disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, the ISS' future fell into a state of limbo because most major ISS components are launched by the shuttles, including ESA's Columbus. The accident forced the United States to rethink its manned space strategy -- a period of deliberation that left the fate of the space station uncertain.
The disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia forced the US government to rethink its manned spaceflight program
But in January, US President George W. Bush unveiled his plan to send American astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars, at the same time saying that once its airworthiness had been reproven, shuttle flights would resume in order to complete construction of the ISS by 2010 and the fleet would be retired right after.
The way forward
"Bush's plan stabilizes our program," said Feustel-Büechl. "It provides a clear, step-by-step strategy starting with the space station as a first step, then a return to the moon and further exploration of the solar system. In this strategy, the ISS is an essential first building block because you can't go to Mars if you haven't experienced the systems you need." The new technologies needed for travel to Mars, like living quarters for extreme environments or new propulsion systems could all be tested on the station, he said.
Columbus laboratory - cutaway view An artist's impression of Columbus - cutaway view - the European laboratory on the International Space Station. credit: esa
Construction of the ISS, which is already the size of a football field and only halfway complete, is expected to resume in earnest when the remaining shuttle fleet starts flying again in 2005.
Life after the space shuttle
After the space shuttle fleet is mothballed, the ISS partners have agreed to use the smaller Russian Soyuz system to transport astronauts to the station. But each Soyuz capsule can only carry three astronauts into space. An extra Soyuz must also be docked on the ISS for escape in the event of an emergency. Another possibility is NASA's planned "Crew Exploration Vehicle." Though still just a sketch on paper, the craft is intended to be ready by 2014. A combination of the two could handle ISS transportation needs.
Meanwhile, a steady stream of European ATV's, Russian "Progress" cargo vessels and Japan's forthcoming H-II Transfer Vehicle could deliver equipment and fuel, keep ISS' inhabitants clothed and fed and also haul away their trash.
Even without the shuttle, the ISS could still continue its operations as planned through 2016. But at the European Space Agency, officials are even more optimistic.
"I hope the same thing will happen as with the (Russian) Mir space station," said Feustel-Büechl. "Mir was designed for a life of seven years but was used for 15."