Despite its status as a shining example of international cooperation, the International Space Station has a harsh lesson to teach the five-member global partnership that built it: Unilateral decision-making can lead to chaos.

Since NASA decided to end its aging cargo- and crew-carrying space shuttle program—a 2005 decision slated to take effect this summer—international partners contributing to the orbiting space complex, including NASA, have devised their own means of accessing the ISS. The result, according to European Space Agency (ESA) chief Jean-Jacques Dordain, is a crazy-quilt of smaller, less-capable cargo-hauling vehicles supplied by Europe, Japan, Russia and eventually the United States. Even worse, in the wake of the shuttle's retirement, space station astronauts will have to rely solely on Russian Soyuz capsules to reach the orbiting outpost for the foreseeable future.

“The most important lesson we can draw from the ISS program is precisely the lack of a common transportation policy, which means today we are in a not very comfortable situation,” Dordain said June 20 at the Paris air show. While unilateral decisions to develop unique space transportation systems were justifiable, in hindsight, Dordain says, Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia and the U.S. could have done more to reach common ground.

“It was anarchy, let's be clear about it,” he said.

In addition to Europe's Ariane 5-launched Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), Japan's H-2 Transfer Vehicle and Russia's Progress cargo hauler, NASA is backing development of privately built space freighters, including the Dragon capsule, built by Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, and the Cygnus cargo module, from Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp.

“Do we really need all of these?” Dordain asks. “This is a situation that results from a lack of consistency and consultation in the area of transportation.”

Looking forward, Dordain hopes space-faring nations can avoid making a similar mistake as they embark on plans to build new rockets and spacecraft capable of sending humans beyond low Earth orbit.

“My concern is that we should discuss and debate a common transportation policy with our partners,” he says. “We have to talk about common interfaces, what redundancies we need in the systems and once we have defined common needs, we'll have to see who can do what on the basis of common interests being developed.”

Dordain says ESA has already initiated talks with U.S. partners for potential future collaboration in the area of manned spaceflight. Since May, he notes, ESA and NASA have been talking about a plan to build a joint U.S.-European spacecraft based on existing designs that could ferry astronauts to the space station and on missions to the Moon and beyond.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says Europe has much to offer the U.S. space agency, which expects to rely increasingly on international partners as looming federal deficits put downward pressure on federal discretionary spending. As NASA finalizes designs for a Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and a new heavy-lift rocket capable of sending humans beyond low Earth orbit, Bolden has encouraged U.S. companies to team with European firms.

“It is my hope that we'll be able to have Europeans in the critical path somewhere in the exploration initiative,” Bolden told Aviation Week, shortly before he attended a meeting with Dordain. The ESA director general raised the potential for a joint manned exploration initiative to combine the service module of the EADS Astrium-built ATV with NASA's crew-capable MPCV, a space capsule based on the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle in development by Lockheed Martin Space Systems for the past six years. “If you look at what ATV's capability is, what has been demonstrated, you can see where that has potential for use as a service module, for example,” Bolden says. “There's all kinds of opportunities that exist based on demonstrated capability from our European partners.”

Dordain, adding that Europe has no plans to develop its own manned spaceflight capability, says a joint U.S.-European program would afford ESA member states an opportunity to capitalize on their investment in the ATV while exploring ways to cover Europe's share of common operations costs associated with the space station.

Currently ESA expects to have no money available for ATV modifications beyond what it pays NASA for Europe's share of the station's operating costs through 2020. That figure is estimated at about $100 million. Dordain says the two sides are shooting for a rough outline of the joint vehicle concept and its development costs by fall, allowing ample time for ESA member states to evaluate the proposal ahead of their budget-setting ministerial council at the end of 2012.

“We should converge towards the fall of this year toward possibly not even one single vehicle but at least toward one module that would make it possible to then have some derivatives in the future with one vehicle dedicated to the U.S., for instance, and one that Europeans could use in other circumstances,” he says.