Paris (AFP) Dec 5, 2001
Partners in the International Space Station hold talks on Thursday aimed at lifting a dark shadow lying over the costliest and most ambitious cooperative venture in space.
Blunt words are expected, for the United States' partners in the ISS are openly worried that proposed spending cuts by NASA could destroy the original vision of the space station.
Far from becoming a first-class platform for research and a symbol of world unity, the station could become an orbiting white elephant, manned by a reduced crew and visited only by millionaire space tourists, they fear.
The meeting at National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Washington headquarters will gather NASA's advisory board and representatives from the partner countries in the ISS.
They include the European Space Agency (ESA), Canada and Japan, which have committed several billion dollars to the ISS in the form of equipment, research modules and astronauts trained to conduct experiments in space.
There is also Russia, which runs second to the United States in providing modules, crew and transport for the ISS, which is being assembled like a giant construction kit 400 kilometers (250 miles) above the Earth.
In the runup to the meeting, all four countries have hiked pressure on Washington, urging it to step away from spending recommendations that, they fear, could rip out the space station's heart.
"We are all reminding the United States that they have to fulfil their obligations with the partnership," Joerg Feustel-Buechel, ESA's director of manned space flight, told AFP Tuesday.
The outcome of the worst planned spending cut would be "completely unacceptable" to ESA, he said.
ESA science ministers last month took the exceptional move of freezing 60 percent of a chunk of 846.69 million euros (762 million dollars) earmarked for European contributions to the ISS from 2002 and 2006.
The money will be released when NASA confirms it is standing by its "original agreement," they warned bluntly. "ESA will fulfil all of its obligations, and by the same token expects NASA to keep to the original treaty."
The cause of the ruckus: NASA has overspent by some 4.8 billion dollars on the ISS, placing itself on course for a final construction tab of more than 30 billion as compared to an original forecast of 17.4 billion.
By some unofficial estimates, the total cost of building and operating the ISS over its 10-year lifespan could be 100 billion dollars.
Struggling to cut back, the agency has axed a planned space ferry to the ISS and frozen plans to build a US dormitory and a 1.5-billion-dollar crew rescue ship, of which a demonstrator, the X-38, is being built with the Europeans.
A NASA cost-evaluation task force has gone even further.
It has drawn up proposals, which will be discussed on Thursday, for reducing the number of US shuttle flights to the ISS; boosting astronauts' stays onboard from the current four or five months; and slashing the station's planned permanent crew from seven to three.
Many space scientists already deride the ISS as a monster that is gobbling up funds from unmanned missions that can do virtually the same work at a fraction of the cost and at no risk to life.
By having only a skeleton crew, they say, there would be no point to ESA's module, Columbus, nor Japan's Kibo unit, which are manned research units due to be slotted into place in 2004.
Already, ESA nations have spent a billion euros (900 million dollars) on Columbus, which is more than two-thirds completed.
"The space station would be diminished with a crew of three," said Feustel-Buechel, who will be attending the Washington meeting for ESA.
"It would mean that Columbus, instead of being used for 13 (astronaut) hours per week, would only get 100 minutes a week, which is ridiculous," he said.
"For the space station to be a world-class facility in space, as the US president calls it, you have to do more than just assemble it, you have to operate it."
Canada, which is contributing hi-tech robot arms to assemble and maintain the ISS, and Russia separately spelt out their concerns last month, warning that the US risked breaching an intergovernment agreement on the space station signed in January 1998.
NASA's ISS funding battle will unfold over the next eight or nine months as Congress discusses the fiscal 2003 budget.
Feustel-Buechel stressed Europe's "excellent cooperation" with the United States in the Hubble space telescope, the Sun-monitoring satellite SOHO and elsewhere.
"We would like to continue on this path of good partnership," he said, adding, however, "For it (the future of scientific research on the ISS) to end unsatisfactorily would, to say the least, not be an encouragement to go on with the next project."
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