NASA chief Michael Griffin has urged Europe to build its own manned space vessels, saying that he is "worried" about the period from 2010 to 2015. During those five years, no Western nation will have technology able to carry people into space.
"We welcome the development of independent European capabilities in space to provide redundant systems in the event of failure of any one partner's capabilities," Griffin told reporters in Paris yesterday.
NASA's space shuttle is due to go out of service in 2010, and the next generation of US manned ships - the Orion programme - isn't forecast to be ready until 2015. At present, the only other countries with the ability to send people to space are Russia and China.
Griffin said he was particularly worried about the International Space Station, which is permanently staffed. Once the Shuttle retires, on current plans the only means of getting to and from the ISS will be by Russian Soyuz ships, which have lately been plagued by technical mishaps.
The European Space Agency has collaborated with Russia on space journeys for a long time, and the Russian space agency Roskosmos has lately sought to suggest that a future generation of Euro/Russian manned voyages was a done deal. However, the ESA has not made up its mind.
Those advocating a European capability point to the "Jules Verne" automated transfer vehicle (ATV) which has just gone into operation delivering supplies to the ISS. At present, the ATV is not configured to carry people or survive atmospheric re-entry; but European aerospace colossus EADS reckon they could upgrade it for "a couple of billion" euros.
"I think it's a great idea. I would love to Europe to do that," said Griffin yesterday.
The ATV is launched atop a disposable Ariane rocket stack, much like Soyuz. NASA's planned Orion craft will also work in this way, returning to old-school "spam-in-a-can"* crewed rockets after a long period with the partly-reusable spaceplane Shuttle. ®
*A term said to have been coined by US test pilot Chuck Yeager, referring to America's first astronauts. Yeager was suggesting that they had no meaningful control over their ships, and thus were not true pilots but merely tinned meat. Scope for piloting genius is also rather limited in the Shuttle, however. (Yeager's school of thought would have favoured craft developing from the famous X-15 rocketplane.)