Governments and industry involved in the International Space Station are tempering their plans for human exploration to fit today's tough economic environment, including a look at recycling ISS components for use beyond low Earth orbit after 2020.

ISS partner-agency chiefs who met here at the 62nd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) last week will take the first tentative steps toward joint exploration of the Solar System, based both on the ISS model for cooperation and perhaps on some station hardware as well.

“Could we take a module, pull it off the station instead of deorbiting it into the ocean?” asks William Gerstenmaier, associate NASA administrator for human exploration and operations. “Could we take some module that has some value to us in exploration architecture and move it to [Lagrangian point] L1 or move it to a lunar orbit and actually use it in another location?”

NASA and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, have agreed to set up an “expert-level group” to review exploration targets for joint cooperation, provided the two sides can agree on where to go and how to get there. Vladimir Popovkin, the new Roscosmos head, told an IAC plenary that deep-space exploration is “unthinkable without broader international cooperation,” because of the cost.

Later, in an interview with Aviation Week, the new space chief said Russia plans to use the new cosmodrome at Vostochny for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, while the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan will continue to be the starting point for Russian missions to the ISS.

The Vostochny Cosmodrome, in Russia's Far East, is still in the “paper stage,” Popovkin says, with construction due to begin next year. The first launch of a “Soyuz family” test vehicle from the new site is targeted for 2015, but beyond that the path is murky. The discussions with NASA may help clarify the issue, he says.

“In order to talk about how to share our inputs to the [exploration] project, first of all we must reach an understanding of what targets we have,” Popovkin says through an interpreter. “After this is decided, we will be able to specify shares, and how they will contribute to each other.”

Stressing that it is very early in the process, Gerstenmaier says similar talks are under way with the European Space Agency (ESA), Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Canadian Space Agency (CSA). An international industrial panel of ISS contractors is also beginning to consider what happens after station funding ends in 2020. For his part, Popovkin says Russia is also studying solo station operations if there is no agreement on a larger plan (see p. 26).

Among the ideas under consideration is a shift in the barter arrangements ISS member governments use to share the cost of operations. ESA and NASA are studying whether it would make sense for the European agency to stop providing Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV) for cargo deliveries to the ISS and build the service module for the Orion-based Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) instead.

“If we can prove that we don't need an ATV beyond 2015, then potentially that frees up some of those common systems ops costs to be used for something else that we, NASA, want, and this could be something along those lines,” Gerstenmaier says. “So we're looking at how we can leverage off our barter agreements on ISS, generically, to help advance exploration.”

NASA is working on similar approaches with JAXA and CSA, Gerstenmaier says, in an effort to begin preparing an exploration architecture now for the day when the station is no longer funded.

Officials of Thales Alenia Space, which builds the ATV structure in Turin, Italy, say ESA has told the company no more of the unpiloted cargo carriers will be needed after 2015 and has set them to work looking for ways to supply a service module for the MPCV Lockheed Martin started building under the old Constellation program.

The uncertainty in international partnerships has also cast a shadow over ESA's ExoMars robotic lander, on which Thales Alenia has been working for five years. Company officials say they have a commitment from ESA to continue work on an old plan that includes a U.S.-launched Mars orbiter in 2016 and a joint ESA/NASA rover in 2018—also U.S.-launched—based on NASA's upcoming Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) “sky crane” landing approach (AW&ST Aug. 1, p. 38).

But NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and his ESA counterpart, Jean-Jacques Dordain, failed to settle their differences on restructuring the two agencies' joint robotic Mars exploration program at a meeting here Oct. 3, and now they hint that it may be time to bring Russia or another partner into the mix.

At issue is how much of the joint program that was worked out when the two agencies had a brighter fiscal outlook can be salvaged in today's bleaker economic environment.

“Every nation in the world today faces fiscal challenges,” Bolden told reporters at an IAC press conference here. “ESA and the United States today are working diligently to determine how our Mars program should proceed.”

Dordain says his sit-down with Bolden was just the latest in almost weekly meetings at a lower bureaucratic level aimed at finding a way to continue the cooperation, particularly since European industry has been working on the original joint program for three years.

“What we would like is to implement the same objectives, and No. 2, to keep as much as possible of the heritage of the industrial activities that we have done for the last three years,” Dordain says. “And for that we are discussing with NASA, but we are also considering connecting with other partners.”

One possibility is to launch the 2016 mission on an Ariane 5. Another is to bring Russia into the joint effort in exchange for a Proton launch in that planetary window. Russian space chief Popovkin says no decision has been made on using a Proton for the 2016 mission, “but if it happens, we will be very happy.”

The ExoMars issue illustrates some of the strains in the ISS partnership as the member agencies adjust to straitened fiscal times back home. CSA President Steve MacLean canceled his IAC visit after a summons to Ottawa to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other top officials. JAXA President Keiji Tachikawa says he welcomes the arrival of Yoshihiko Noda, Japan's new prime minister, as a space neophyte who can be “educated” in space policy. “We have to educate politicians,” he says in an interview. “We don't have very long.”

One vehicle for that education is the new Global Exploration Road Map prepared by the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (Isecg), which sets out routes to Mars running through the Moon and a near-Earth asteroid (AW&ST Oct. 3, p. 18). Kathleen C. Laurini, a senior NASA representative on the Isecg, says the group used a formal set of lessons learned, prepared by the ISS partnership after assembly completion, in beginning to draw its path to post-ISS exploration. Among the principles used were the need to accommodate partner objectives within the larger plan, set realistic expectations and use design reference missions to shape requirements.

The coordination group's recommendations are filtering back to the members' governments, which will begin to define their preferred roles and objectives. The space station is the jumping-off point for both pathways, and the ideas are pouring in on how to use it.

The station already is scheduled as the site for a delayed-communication analog for a Mars mission, Gerstenmaier says. An IAC paper prepared by Michael Raftery, Boeing's deputy ISS program manager, and Jeffrey Hoffman, a former shuttle astronaut who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lists a number of other concepts for the ISS as a way station for near-term exploration, starting with its use as a testbed for advanced life support and other technologies that will be needed for travel beyond LEO. Later, it could be used as a “base camp” where deep-space explorers could check their systems before moving farther away from Earth.

Ultimately, station elements could be disconnected, reconfigured and moved to the Earth-Moon Lagrangian points, where they would circulate in relatively stable orbits without falling into the Moon's gravity well. From there, it would be easier to get moving on to an asteroid or lunar orbit and eventually Mars.

The “exploration platform” could be used as a way station for human asteroid exploration, as a base for a reusable lunar lander that could return to the Moon's surface after refueling, and ultimately as the starting point for Mars exploration.

“It would be kind of near the Moon; it's not very big,” says Raftery. “We're imaging that there probably would be a Russian element to it, and an international module of some kind, so we've been talking to our Russian colleagues about that kind of thing.

“The idea behind this [paper] was to work all the way to the end goal, which was putting humans on Mars and bringing them home, and then see what [it takes] to do that, and then what you need to be doing right now to at least get us on that path.”