NASA and other International Space Station (ISS) partners want to speed up the utilization of the $100 billion facility. Immediate plans include a same-day rendezvous and docking of a Russian Progress cargo freighter on August 1, with a longer-term goal to put a seventh crew member aboard for performing more research work.
Up until now, launching crew and cargo to ISS has been a multi-day process, where a spacecraft is launched into orbit and then spends a day or so of "chase" catching up to the orbiting space station for rendezvous and docking. ISS Progress 48 will launch at 3:15 p.m. EDT on Wednesday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and dock at 9:24 p.m. on the same day. When it arrives, it will deliver about two metric tons of supplies.
If successful, the direct-approach launch profile would be used for future Soyuz crew member flights, providing a couple extra days of work time to keep the space station fully staffed at six crew members. With six on board, there's enough crew time to conduct about 40 hours of person-tended research. Cut that to three people, and there's barely enough time to keep the station running and astronauts healthy enough for a return to earth.
Quickly bringing back experiments and other "downmass" from ISS will fall to SpaceX's (News - Alert) Dragon capsule and the company's commercial service. Last month, SpaceX successfully demonstrated the ability to return samples from ISS to earth within 48 hours of undocking, one of the services it offers to NASA under its $1.6 billion 12-flight order under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract to deliver cargo and return things from ISS. The company wants to fit in two CRS flights by the end of this year -- a highly aggressive goal, given its previous track record in fulfilling its launch manifest -- and may have broader opportunities in the future if research starts cranking up at the space station.
But more research would require more people on the station to conduct experiments -- a possibility NASA has discussed in Congressional hearings. All of the companies planning to demonstrate U.S. flagged commercial crew services to deliver astronauts to the space station have said they would be able to deliver up to seven people per launch, adding another pair of hands to today's six person crew.
How soon U.S. commercial providers will be available to deliver flights to ISS is a subject of some debate. Nearly all of the current vendors in the program -- ATK (News - Alert), Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX -- say they can start operations in the 2015-2016 timeframe with "full funding.” NASA is more cautious and believes companies can start providing seats to ISS in 2017 if "full funding" comes from Congress. The agency wants $850 million over the next four to five years while Congress seems to be included to provide around $512 million in the upcoming 2013 fiscal year.
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Edited by Rachel Ramsey