January 16, 2006

Europe seeks lift for stranded space lab

By Anna Willard

PARIS (Reuters) - Europe is looking to thumb a ride for its
1 billion euro ($1.21 billion) space laboratory which has been
gathering dust on Earth since the U.S. space shuttle was all
but grounded after a 2003 crash.

The U.S. shuttle is the only vehicle that can carry large
equipment to the International Space Station and its grounding
has left the European Space Agency wondering how else it might
send the Columbus research center into orbit.

"What we hope is for the Columbus to be launched as quickly
as possible," Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the
European Space Agency, told a news conference on Monday.

U.S. space agency NASA halted shuttle flights for more than
two years after the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over
Texas in February 2003, killing seven astronauts.

It launched the Discovery shuttle last July but the fleet
was quickly grounded again because of new problems.

The next shuttle flight is tentatively scheduled for May.
But Dordain said there are other countries with scientific
projects waiting to catch a ride.

"There are others in the queue, notably the Japanese who
want their laboratory launched as quickly as possible," he

He also wants to make sure that there will be enough
flights for scientists to access the European laboratory after
it has been sent into orbit.

"We are trying to avoid a situation where we can launch
Columbus but not use it," he said.

The problem has Dordain looking for alternatives. He said
he is still keen to work with NASA but says in future there
must be two transport systems in case one breaks down.

"If there is one lesson we have learned from the space
station, it's that it should not depend on one launcher," he

He said there is no way that Europe will be able to build
its own shuttle in the foreseeable future. Budget constraints
and a focus on science projects that could bring more practical
benefits to Europeans mean that building a space transport
system for goods or people is not a priority.

One possibility is to contribute to a Russian project to
develop its reusable Clipper shuttle that might be ready for
test flights early next decade.

It would then gradually take over from the Soyuz spaceship,
which has been putting cosmonauts in orbit since the 1960s and
has been the primary carrier of supplies to the ISS since the
shuttle disaster.