Thursday, 13 August 2015

ISS: Developments in the US and worldwide

US Congress passed a bill, which, among others, provides for the extension of US operations in the International Space Station (ISS) until 2024 and introduces the notion of “governmental astronaut”. At the same time, NASA administrator complained to Congress that NASA underfunding made the new deal with Roscosmos on carrying US astronauts with Russian vehicles necessary. New EASA Chief envisages new ISS partners and Bigelow Aerospace attaches its experimental module.

The Senate passed S. 1297, the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which extends US operation of the ISS until 30 September 2024. The respective House Bill, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, does not provide for such extension, although the Obama administration has approved it since January 2014.  

The Senate bill foresees the notion of “governmental astronaut”, who is
(A)  (i) an employee of the United States Government, including the uniformed services, engaged in the performance of a Federal function under authority of law or an Executive act; or
      (ii) an international partner astronaut;
(B) is identified by the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration;
(C) is carried within a launch vehicle or reentry vehicle; and
(D) may perform or may not perform activities directly relating to the launch, reentry, or other operation of the launch vehicle or reentry vehicle.

The extension of ISS operations through 2024 has already been approved by Russia and Canada. Russia has also announced its intention to separate its module from the ISS after 2024 and prepare manned lunar missions around 2030.

The new ESA Head, Johann-Dietrich Woerner, envisages the participation of also India and China to the ISS, not only to widen international cooperation in the ISS, as officially stated, but probably also to cover funding difficulties that Europe and Japan are facing.

Meanwhile, the US renewed the agreement with Russia for the carriage of US astronauts on board Soyuz vehicles to the ISS through 2019 for about $ 490 million. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden sent a letter to Congress on Aug. 5, 2015 informing members that, due to continued reductions in the president’s funding requests for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program over the past several years, NASA was forced to extend its existing contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) to transport US astronauts to the ISS and urged for approval of the funding NASA has requested, in order to promote US transportation capabilities to the ISS.

At the same time, NASA executed with Bigelow Aerospace a contract to test at the ISS the inflatable space habitat that the company has developed. The inflatable module will be attached to the ISS for two years, during which ISS crew members and ground-based engineers will gather performance data, including its structural integrity and leak rate. An assortment of instruments embedded within module will provide important insights on its response to the space environment, including radiation and temperature changes compared with traditional aluminum modules. Bigelow Aerospace will demonstrate to NASA how its inflatable habitats can be used to support safe, affordable, and robust human spaceflight missions to other celestial bodies.

All these developments underline the importance of ISS for international cooperation and its role for the future of human space exploration, notwithstanding politics on Earth.

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