Columbia Disaster Threatens Space Station | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 13.02.2003
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Columbia Disaster Threatens Space Station

With NASA's Space Shuttle program out of commission for now, European and Russian partners in the International Space Station face difficult questions about the project's future.


A rose for the lost

As NASA officials in the United States sought answers to Saturday's Space Shuttle Columbia catastrophe, which killed seven astronauts, European space authorities began considering the ramifications the deadly accident could have on the International Space Station.

"The immediate consequence is that we will have no Space Shuttle flights for a while -- at least for as long as we don't know what happened," Franco Bonacina, spokesman for the Paris-based European Space Agency, told DW-WORLD. "Without Shuttle flights, we cannot continue to grow the space station as planned, but everything else is under control. The crew on board can continue to perform their tasks, and supplies can be refurbished through Russian Soyuz flights."

International Space Station

International Space Station

Still, it is too early to consider the longterm consequences, Bonacino cautioned. "In the coming months, we will have to reassess the ISS (photo) program and rearrange the schedule, but no one is putting into question whether or not space travel will continue. We will continue to train our astronauts and, for the time being, there will be no changes, but this is an evolving situation." For now at least, the €100 billion ($108 billion) ISS program is "not in danger," he said.

ESA's director for manned space flights, Jörg Feustel-Buechl, told German public television the Columbia disaster wouldn't impact European participation in the space station program, as long as Shuttle flights aren't suspended for "too long."

Temporary abandonment a possibility

But most agree that the ISS program cannot continue without the Space Shuttle and that if quick answers for the accident aren't found, the international cooperation could be jeopardized. After the deadly explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, NASA suspended shuttle flights for nearly three years. If this grounding of the fleet lasts as long, the ISS will have to be abandoned.

There are currently three European astronauts scheduled for flights to the space station -- two on Russian Soyuz rockets and one who is scheduled to depart on the Space Shuttle Atlantis in July 2003. However, all three flights have been placed under review until the safety of the U.S. and Russian space programs can be determined in the wake of the second deadly disaster in the Space Shuttle program's two decade history.

Sojus-Rakete in Baikonur

The Soyuz TM booster rocket

Supplies on the ISS are sufficient for astronauts to remain on board at least until June. But a planned Soyuz journey in April would extend that timeframe. However, with a capacity of only 5 tons (compared to a Shuttle's 100 tons), the Soyuz rockets lack the massive cargo bays of the Space Shuttle and are unable to carry the large components needed to continue building the space station. Russia is also only capable of building two of the single-use Soyuz craft a year, making it difficult to maintain supplies let alone shuttle astronauts to the orbiting laboratory.

Longterm suspension of flights on the remaining three Space Shuttles could have major financial implications not only for the United States, but also for other countries participating in the ISS project -- including Canada, Russia, Japan and Europe.

"A delay of the expansion of the station will cost," German Aerospace Center (DLR) space travel project leader Klaus Berge told the news agency DPA. "If plans are delayed by a year, that would cost Germany alone €250 million," he said. But ESA's Feustel-Buechl downplayed such estimates as "speculation."

Russian space program to lead for now

With increased demand for its Soyuz spacecraft, Russia says it plans to discontinue its space tourism program. The move comes as Russia's role in maintaining ISS is expected to increase.

Until NASA is able to find answers, Russia will be responsible for servicing the space station. On Sunday, Moscow went ahead with the launch of a Progress 47 unmanned supply vehicle carrying groceries, fuel and technical equipment for the ISS crew. Currently, there are two American astronauts and one Russian living on the space station. It's still unclear how long the men will have to stay in orbit.

"There's never been a situation like this," Russian space program director Valeri Rjoemin said. "We're going to have to reconsider the entire program of cooperation on the International Space Station. At this time, we can continue to supply the station with our supply vehicles and also ferry astronauts, but not forever. We need more money for these types of transports."

Russian experts interviewed by DW-RADIO said they believe there's a good chance the space station will have to be temporarily abandoned because Russian supply vehicles can't replace the grounded fleet of space shuttles -- at least not in the long run.

But the Russian Aviation and Space Agency (Rosaviakosmos) says the ISS can still be manned for at least another year. But a spokesman said the agency could not rule out the possibilities of delays in future launches and that the possibility of maintaining the station, at least for a time, without astronauts, would also be reviewed.

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