June 27, 2006

Europe Has Much Riding Aboard US Space Shuttle

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- While the upcoming flight of space shuttle Discovery marks a critical test for the U.S. space agency NASA, Europe will have a lot riding aboard the shuttle too.

German-born Thomas Reiter, 48, will be one of Discovery's seven crewmembers when it makes its planned liftoff on July 1. And his presence goes beyond mere symbolism since the flight, in many ways, is key to the future of Europe's manned space program.

Reiter will be returning to space after a 10-year hiatus, having last served aboard Russia's now-defunct Mir space station.

"We are trying to use this for public interest, for consciousness that now things are continuing and progressing," said Reiter.

Reiter is set to become the first member of an International Space Station crew who is not from the United States or Russia, dominant partners in the 16-nation program.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has spent more than $6 billion on its Columbus research space module, which was built to link up with the station. But its launch, like many other components of the half-built station, has been on hold pending a successful return to flight of NASA's shuttles.

"We are all desperately waiting for the moment when Columbus will be docked to the station," said Reiter.

In addition to design and manufacturing expenses, ESA pays about $500 million a year for operational costs stemming from the Columbus program, making it the single most expensive space project ever undertaken by Europe.

"The budgets are set. And due to all these incidents that we had, of course everybody understood that this causes a delay," said Reiter, referring to NASA's problems with the shuttle.

"But it imposed some difficulties in reorganizing the (ESA-Columbus) program," he said.


"For example, all the engineers in all the companies (needed) to stay for longer. At launch, they are looking for other jobs and they are gone. You don't get them back and these people do not grow on trees," he said. "If you then have a complex machine in orbit, you need engineering support. So that was quite a challenge to keep the team together."

The shuttle program was grounded to fix problems with the spaceship's external fuel tank, which triggered the 2003 loss of shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts.

NASA had hoped its initial redesign, which was tested during Discovery's launch in July 2005 on the first post-Columbia mission, would clear the path to resume station assembly. But Discovery's tank, like Columbia's, shed large pieces of foam insulation, prompting another wave of modifications.

Throughout the downtime, Reiter kept training. As delays mounted, he shifted from one Space Station crew to another, eventually ending up with a scheduled 145-day flight that straddles the ongoing Expedition 13 mission and the next increment, which is targeted to begin in September.

A latecomer to the Discovery crew, Reiter nonetheless said he feels perfectly at ease with his six shuttle crewmates. British-born Piers Sellers, who became a U.S. citizen in 1991 and joined NASA's astronaut corps five years later, will also be aboard. Rounding out the crew are commander Steve Lindsey, pilot Mark Kelly, flight engineer Lisa Nowak, spacewalker Michael Fossum and mission specialist Stephanie Wilson.

As far as the risks of flying on the shuttle, Reiter said he is sure it has never been safer.

"Everything has been done to minimize the risk," he said.

Spaceflight in general requires participants to accept higher risk, he added.

"This is a decision we take at the very beginning. We are aware that there is a higher risk and we balance it against what we gain in experience, in knowledge," Reiter said. "It's why we do exploration."