Enlarging space station gets an OK

International partners, NASA tentatively agree to 6-person capacity

July 24, 2004|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,ORLANDO SENTINEL

WASHINGTON - NASA and its 15 international partners have tentatively agreed to expand the International Space Station beyond its current three-person capacity.

The maximum crew size likely would be six, the number of astronauts that could fit into two Russian Soyuz ships docked at the station in case of an emergency.

The agreement essentially returns the station's final setup to the plan that existed before 2001, when NASA scrapped the idea for a habitation module and an escape vehicle capable of carrying seven astronauts. The move eliminated an estimated $4 billion in cost overruns but also limited the station to three people.

Scientists howled at the cuts, saying three people could do only bare-bones science.

The loss of the space shuttle Columbia in February 2003 halted construction on the station, which is unlikely to resume until late next year or early 2006. But the accident also prompted NASA and the White House to rethink its purpose.

In January, President Bush proposed using it as a research platform for observing the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body, a crucial part of a new agenda for NASA, focused on returning astronauts to the moon and on to Mars.

Under the plan, the shuttle fleet would be retired when construction of the station is finished, around the end of the decade. Then most of NASA's budget would be poured into building a new spacecraft, a more advanced propulsion system and sending unmanned missions to the moon, Mars and elsewhere in the solar system.

NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said the agency thinks it can complete the station without additional money beyond the $9.3 billion it already planned to spend between fiscal 2005 and 2009. That would bring the total spent since 1994 to $30.8 billion.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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