One Went Up, One Coming Down (Tonight)

In what turned out to be a rather busy last Friday in September for European space, an Ariane V rocket completed its 51st consecutive successful launch at almost the same time the ESA built ATV-3 resupply ship departed the International Space Station following a six month stay.

The ATV was actually scheduled to depart earlier in the week, but was delayed for several days as managers sought to resolve a communications problem between the Station and the supply ship, while it was still docked to the station’s Zvezda service module.  Now, packed with garbage, the spacecraft, which was named for Edoardo Amaldi will begin its inevitable plunge into the upper atmosphere over the Pacific ocean with an expected impact this evening at 9:29 PM EDT.  The  demise of the highly capable craft highlights the critical role of the returnable and ultimately reusable SpaceX Dragon capsule, due to blast off on the first of 12 NASA Commercial Resupply Missions on October 7. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station partners are almost completely dependent on SpaceX for returning both equipment and experiments for ground analysis, and in some cases re-use.

Taking a longer term view, the intentional destruction of the Automated Transfer Vehicle points to the remarkable waste of assets in a space exploration architecture in which “expendable” is still not a dirty word.  At a cost of roughly $300 million to build and another $200 million to launch, the ATV is one very expensive piece of space hardware.  It is also a highly capable, pressurized and powered vessel which functions as a temporary add-on room for ISS while still attached to the outpost, and is virtually a mini station itself while in transit . Now, for all that effort, it is filled  with 2,181 lb of trash and 771 lb of urine and waste water.   Two more ATV’s are currently scheduled to re-supply ISS.

As an aside, NASA would very much like the European space Agency to modify  the basic ATV design to serve as a service module for the Orion Capsule, which somehow having absorbed more than  6  billion dollars already, still does not anticipate  having available funding to independently develop a service module to actually make the system useful.

Regarding the ATV however, while there is nothing which is going to change the fate of the next two units, one had to marvel at the disconnect between national and international space programs which annually billions of dollars purportedly in support of “space exploration” without embracing the concept that until we learn to make the most use of the resources which cost so much energy and expense to lift into orbit the first place, very little can ultimately be accomplished. The next ATV, scheduled to launch in 2013, is named Albert Einstein.  Wonder what the world’s smartest man would think of a plan which turns a $500 million dollar investment into an incinerating Porta-Potti?

Demise of ATV-1 “Jules Verne”
Credit ESA

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1 Comment on "One Went Up, One Coming Down (Tonight)"

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  1. Coastal Ron says:

    Very much on point. Until we truly implement reusability, we’ll never be able to afford to do much in space.

    The Shuttle was a grand experiment in reusability, and though a good idea to try, it failed. It’s even worse that no one really cared about the cost issue with the Shuttle, but that probably goes back to “space” not really being what I call a “National Imperative”. Space is more a passionate hobby for the U.S., but we lack an overall impetus to help us realize that issues like reusability are important.

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