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Europe delivers onspace projects

By Peter N. Spotts Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 21, 2000



NOORDWIJK, NETHERLANDS

As the International Space Station orbits Earth with its first full-time crew, Jorg Feustel-Buechl sits amid mountaineering memorabilia and models of spacecraft here, conducting a brief countdown of his own.

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Each step in the station's construction brings Europe's three-ton laboratory module, Columbus, one step closer to launch.

Acknowledging that excitement levels reached new peaks with last July's launch of the long-delayed Russian service module and with October's arrival of the station's first crew, "now we are getting more excited as it gets closer to launching Columbus," says the European Space Agency's director of manned spaceflight and microgravity.

Mr. Feustel-Buechl is based at ESA's largest facility, the European Space Research and Technology Center (ESTEC).

Nestled amid rolling sand dunes along the Netherlands' North Sea coast, ESTEC is something of a cross between Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA's Johnson Spaceflight Center. Here, new technologies are developed, new spacecraft are tested, and projects such as Europe's contributions to the space station are managed.

During a recent Monitor interview, he describes to a visitor how Europe's ability to stand on an equal footing with the US on space projects has come a long way over the years.

In the 1970s and into the early '80s, the relation between ESA and NASA was a "relation between teacher and pupil," he says. "But now there is a true spirit of partnership; it is not a superior-inferior relationship. I think the US is far more open to international cooperation in space than they have been."

Yet even for a 15-nation agency that wrote the handbook on international cooperation in space, participation in the international space station program has posed challenges, Feustel-Buechl says.

For example, he says, one of the biggest challenges was pulling the space station program together in the first place. Once ESA member states commit to a space project, they fully fund it through its lifetime instead of on a year-by-year basis. In the early years of the space station's development, Europeans endured nail-biting moments as the US Congress and presidents called for redesigns and even challenged the program's very existence.

Another challenge, he says, came from working with the Russians. From his perspective, the challenge came less from Moscow's budget woes than from what he calls Russia's "pragmatic" approach to building space hardware.

"The Japanese, Americans, Canadians, and we in Europe have approximately the same technical culture," he says. "But the Russians have a completely different approach to these things" - one that has little patience with leaving a detailed paper trail behind each change in hardware as launch approaches.

For example, the Europeans built the central computer system aboard Zvezda, the space station's control center. But the Russians tested and installed the system.

"They made changes and adaptations without extensive paperwork," the ESTEC official explains. "I wouldn't say they have not been careful enough. But they have been rather courageous in their approach."

"One of the lessons learned for me is that maybe a mixture of approaches is a good one," he says.

For its part, ESA is well on its way to delivering its lab module, according to Feustel-Buechl. Next year, it will be shipped from Italy to Germany for installation of equipment. Then it goes into storage for a year and a half before shipment to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida late in 2003 or early 2004.

"That's one of the consequences of delays" in space-station construction, he says, wistfully. "We are almost two years too early with our equipment. I would like to have flown in 2003."

In addition, ESA is providing an automated vehicle to transfer fuel and other supplies to the space station and act as a cosmic dumpster, which incinerates on reentry to Earth's atmosphere.

Tipping the scales at nearly 21 tons, "it's a very complex spacecraft," he notes. It not only must serve as a rocket's upper stage and put its payload in orbit, but it also must have the technical properties of a satellite, since it will remain attached to the space station on orbit for up to nine months. Apart from its technical participation, ESA also is taking major steps toward ensuring that the station will be maintained and supplied during its time on orbit. At the end of next year, ESA hopes to sign a $2.3 billion contract with a consortium of companies that will provide these support services.

He describes one Zvezda-based experiment sponsored by a Swiss watchmaker and a European automaker. The two companies have invested roughly $3.5 million to $4.5 million in the space-based timing experiment. The watchmaker hopes to develop and market wristwatches that will use time signals from orbit to provide the most accurate time possible and will automatically adjust itself as a wearer travels across time zones.

While he's not averse to looking at potential cooperative space projects beyond the international space station if pestered to do so, Feustel-Buechl holds that the orbiting lab will keep its partners busy for some time to come.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society