Here at Cape Canaveral, Florida, the ongoing countdown to the 132nd space shuttle launch is also counting towards the end of this iconic space programme. Washington has decreed that the Atlanta, which is scheduled to blast off on Friday, will be the third last shuttle mission ever. With a follow-on programme nowhere in sight, America's space shuttle pioneers stare at an uncertain future.
President Barack Obama has decided that it is wasteful and risky to continue using the space shuttle for transporting US astronauts and stores to and from the International Space Station; instead, this low-tech, "near-earth" task should be farmed out to commercial agencies. The cutting-edge capabilities of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration should be directed towards new frontiers in outer space. But there is no new space policy that spells out an alternative task.
The US is now considering using cheap Russian launches for sending its astronauts to the ISS. Russia has warehouses full of decommissioned missile rockets called the RD-170; these are re-engineered into RD-180 rockets, which cost a tenth of America's.
But, for the longer term, the US is eyeing a closer linkage with the Indian space programme, something that New Delhi has already suggested to Washington. In February, Indian Space Research Organisation chief K Radhakrishnan and K R Sridhara Murthi, MD of Isro's marketing arm, Antrix, met senior Boeing executives and suggested closer ties. Boeing is the OEM of the space shuttle. Senior Indian leaders and diplomats, including Ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar, have persistently pressed for closer US-India space cooperation.
Now, senior executives from Boeing Defence, Space and Security (BDS) have divulged the details of cooperation that ISRO has sought for building up India's capacity for manned space missions. Kevin Hoshstrasser, the head of Boeing's operations at the Kennedy Space Centre in Orlando, Florida, reveals that ISRO has sought assistance in four specific areas:
A launch escape system (LES) to enable astronauts to escape from a rocket that is undergoing catastrophic failure. Last week, Boeing successfully tested their latest escape vehicle.
A life support and environmental control system, which creates an environment inside the space capsule in which astronauts can comfortably carry out their functions. This removes carbon dioxide and maintains humidity levels.
Vehicle Health Monitoring System (VHMS), which keeps a constant check over key systems.
Reusable space systems and composition cryogenic tanks. These tanks would be used to store fuel for India's cryogenic motors.
Senior Boeing executives are in contact with ISRO and Boeing has prepared an internal white paper on US-India space cooperation. For discussing substantive, and potentially classified, issues with ISRO, Boeing has applied to the US government for a Technical Assistance Agreement.
Boeing's Business Development Senior Manager for space systems, Sam Gunderson, is emphatic that Boeing wishes to partner ISRO and in building Indian space systems. Brushing away concerns about US export licencing, Gunderson says, "Dual use restrictions (under the US law: International Traffic in Arms Regulations) in space cooperation would be significant, but we can find a way to work around those."
Space partnership has gained momentum since the US-India nuclear pact. In 2009, ISRO invited Boeing to a conference in India on robotics. The moon mission, Chandrayaan-1, carried NASA sensors made by Boeing.
As the countdown continues at the Kennedy Space Centre, the excitement that suffuses a shuttle launch is tinged with disappointment at the impending closure of the shuttle programme. Scientists explain that no rocket in the world can send up 7 astronauts to the ISS for extended missions, and also carry 25 tonnes of bulky cargo. The space shuttle is made even more invaluable by its ability to bring back tonnes of cargo to earth from the space station, material that would otherwise be wasted.