The space shuttle Atlantis is set for launch Thursday – barring bad weather – to carry Europe's $1.6 billion Columbus laboratory to the orbiting outpost. Coming after a two-month delay due to technical problems, the launch is a coming-out party of sorts for Europe's manned-spaceflight program.
It is also a test case for legal agreements on collaborative space exploration.
The Columbus lab plays a key role in the European Union's long-term plans for manned spaceflight, including future planetary exploration. After nearly 25 years of designs and redesigns, renegotiated agreements, and launch delays, Europe will finally see its hardware in orbit.
In March and April, the major components of Japan's lab are scheduled for launch as well, bringing the station closer to completion.
The Europeans are wasting no time putting the 10.3-ton lab to work. Atlantis's seven-member crew includes two European astronauts. Both will help get the lab ready for use once it's mated to the station. One will remain on the station to conduct experiments.
"The missions that we've had up to this point have focused on building the backbone of the international space station and providing the power" and other capabilities the station needs to run all the labs and support up to six astronauts, says Mike Sarafin, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's lead flight director for Atlantis's 12-day trip.
While the station focuses on research, it also represents a lab of a different sort, notes Joanne Gabrynowicz, director of the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law at the University of Mississippi in University, Miss. "We tend to focus on engineering and science" in talking about the space station's value, she says. "But at the same time, this is a test bed for law and policy" governing international space exploration.
At best, the legal framework governing the ISS project could serve as a springboard for future agreements on projects that could include manned lunar exploration. At the least, it gives spacefaring nations valuable experience in figuring out the division of rights and responsibilities when running joint programs.
Each country registers the hardware it contributes under its flag with the United Nations. So moving from a US module to a Japanese or European module means moving from one country to another. The ISS agreements cover the bases – who controls what (the US gets access to half the Columbus module), intellectual property rights such as patents for discoveries made with commercial experiments, criminal jurisdiction, and liability issues.
One measure of how well the system has worked so far is a lack of incidents, Dr. Gabrynowicz notes. "As a lawyer, I'd say if you're not hearing anything, it's working."
But the more rigorous test may come once the European and Japanese labs are in full operation, and the crews grow from the current three to six. Both "believe a lot of good science can be done," notes George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society in Washington. NASA, in contrast, has scaled back its plans for the space station as its priorities have shifted to building a replacement for the shuttle and returning humans to the moon.
While the ISS framework may be working so far for countries, it's less clear how useful the experience will be for private companies. Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, for example, is working with United Launch Alliance to qualify the alliance's Atlas 5 rocket for carrying humans into space. According to Space News this week, Bigelow is looking to use six of the rockets to launch an inflatable commercial space station beginning in 2011 and needs a reliable rocket to carry station components, cargo, and crew into orbit.
When it comes to commercial ventures, "the good news is that the issues are a lot easier" because contracts tend to be one on one, says Glenn Reynolds, who specializes in technology and law at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Still, the ISS exercise can serve as a model for working with multiple international partners. "It's forced people to think about what might come up," he says.