Earlier this week, NASA and ESA announced that the ESA's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) will be adapted for use as a service module for the Orion spacecraft.
The ATV-4 (named the Albert Einstein) mission is scheduled for launch to the ISS on April 18, 2013. As with previous missions, the Albert Einstein will deliver fuel, water, consumables, food, and other supplies to the station.
This week's announcement outlines an agreement in which ESA will provide one service module, with replacement parts as needed.
As was the case in earlier agreements reached between NASA and its international partners, it is thought that the agreement was reached through a barter arrangement. In return for the service module, ESA will likely receive additional operational capability on the ISS. It is also possible a future flight crew on the Orion would include an ESA astronaut.
It was a busy and eventful week on the International Space Station this week.
After nearly two weeks docked to the ISS, the first Commercial Resupply Service mission (CRS-1) was unberthed and returned to Earth. For the first time since the retirement of the US Space Shuttle fleet, the United States and its international partners have the capability to send and return equipment, supplies, experiments and other materials to and from the space station.
Flying its third Dragon spacecraft into orbit, Space X's team sent 986 pounds of new supplies and equipment to the ISS, and returned nearly a ton of experiments, broken equipment and other materials to the Earth.
The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft (Credit: NASA)
There is something both satisfying and frustrating about the historic space first achieved last Friday.
Let's talk about positives first.
What the SpaceX team has accomplished is nothing short of monumental: under the extraordinary leadership of former PayPal founder and owner Elon Musk, SpaceX has built and launched not only a single spacecraft, but an entire space system.
Beginning with the Falcon 1 rocket, then on to the Falcon 9, SpaceX has demonstrated an ability to bring private-sector resources, experience, and capabilities to human spaceflight.
But SpaceX didn't stop there.
In addition to designing and building their own launch vehicles, SpaceX has designed and built the Dragon spacecraft. This remarkable vehicle -- like the Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft (which has been in service and has flown nearly continuously since 1967) -- is designed to carry both cargo and humans to and from low-Earth orbit, to the Moon, and to Mars and other far objects.
It's important to be completely honest about this achievement: although primarily a private-enterprise effort, SpaceX has had an enormous amount of help from American taxpayers through NASA. Over the past decade or so the federal government, through NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, has channeled over $1 billion to SpaceX to support the Dragon-Falcon program.
Federal-private sector contracting has been in place since the beginning of the American space program. As NASA's International Space Station program manager Mike Suffredini said in a recent interview, NASA has never built a spacecraft or rocket. That has always been done by private sector companies, but with extensive NASA oversight and using NASA's designs and requirements.
What is different with SpaceX is that NASA -- in working to establish and grow the commercial spaceflight sector -- is simply subsidizing SpaceX, not leading it. To be sure, SpaceX must meet rigorous hardware and operational requirements set by NASA in integrating its systems into the ISS program. But SpaceX has designed, built, tested and flown its own spacecraft primarily through its own resources.
This also demonstrates human spaceflight operations being conducted with private sector systems and efficiencies in place. Except for the earlier less-risk averse days of NASA, it would have been highly improbable to see a launch attempt aborted with .05 seconds until launch, the cause of the abort found quickly, and the vehicle turned around in two days. That rarely happens in today's NASA, but it happens in the private sector all the time.
What we are seeing is the dawn of the next phase of human spaceflight where we will see private companies take their place next to government-sponsored programs. This is how it should be.
Tomorrow, we'll talk about frustrations.
But in the meantime, a major Memorial Day salute to SpaceX, to NASA, and to every other company and individual who had a hand in this past weekend's success.
For the first time in several years, I'm switching blogging tools.
Now that I've discovered Weebly, I'll give this a try and see how I like it. I'll also see if I can actually become creative enough to set up a website that anyone wants to read.
So far, this has been the easiest experience ever.
Some of you may ask why I have posted a photo of the cover of former Vice President Richard B. Cheney's recent autobiography.
The answer is really quite simple: the photo is colorful and catches the eye easily; the photo was the first I found after about 15 seconds' sifting through things.
Mike Salsgiver, 59, is a space enthusiast and active in local government and political circles. He has been married for 32 years to the former Brenda Hogan. They have 4 children, two grandchildren, and one huge dog named Sam. The Salsgivers live in Portland, OR.