Engineers at the Kennedy Space Center are cleaning and studying a grounded space station module that could be launched in a few years as a hub for inflatable habitats and technology demonstrations.
Kirk Shireman, NASA's deputy International Space Station program manager, said plans to launch the new component will depend on the outcome of space budget and policy debates among Congress and the White House.
If NASA, an international partner, or commercial firm wants to add new pieces to the station, there could be a shortage of docking and berthing ports on the modules already in space. [Graphic: The International Space Station Explained]
"We're waiting on the dust to settle on what is NASA and some partnership going to to do in the future for exploration activities," Shireman said in an interview last week. "Would it drive us to want to launch this as a source for extra ports?"
Right now, Shireman said, the outpost has enough docking and berthing ports to receive all the visiting cargo freighters planned over the next few years, including Japan's H-2 Transfer Vehicle and commercial automated vehicles being developed by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp.
The station also has room to receive a future U.S. rescue capsule or crew transportation system, according to Shireman.
"Unless there's something new relative to exploration, we have enough ports to support the ISS needs," Shireman said.
But there are not many extra parking spots if officials decided to test exploration systems or add more pressurized modules to the complex.
"If you look at what's on ISS today, we can run out of available ports pretty quick," Shireman said. "There is a possibility that we'll need additional ports on ISS to put an inflatable module on there, or to build a vehicle that might go to high Earth orbit instead of low Earth orbit."
The space station has three connecting modules called nodes that serve as attachment points for international laboratories, the shuttle docking system, airlock and other systems.
Alongside experiments and supplies being readied inside the Space Station Processing Facility at KSC, the Node Structural Test Article is being cleaned and analyzed in parallel with higher-priority preparations of hardware scheduled to launch on the final two space shuttle missions.
The Node Structural Test Article and was built in the 1990s as a testbed for early space station elements.
But the pathfinder module was never launched, and it was stored under a bag outside at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
NASA shipped the 15-foot-diameter test article to Florida on May 4 on a Super Guppy cargo plane, according to Tracy Young, a KSC spokesperson.
"We have it there in a conditioned space, and the guys at KSC are looking at it as time allows to see what, if anything, we have to do to make it flight-worthy," Shireman said. "In addition, we have some folks ? a very small number ? off looking at how could it be used."
Young said there is no timetable for completion of the structural analysis.
"We have no concrete plans," Shireman said. "All we really did was move it from one place to another and dust it off a little bit."
If needed, NASA could launch the module on an unmanned Atlas or Delta rocket in 2013 or 2014, opening up five new berthing ports for additional modules by 2015.
"The question is how do we connect ISS together with exploration. At this point in time, one of the big debates is what is exploration these days," Shireman said.
"Even in the context of the president's budget announcement in February of this year, there are a number of things that were discussed - exploration and technology demonstrations - that would actually use ISS as a base," Shireman said. "And they would all require ports, whether it's a berthing port or a docking port."
Early engineering concepts show the test article could be attached to the forward end of the Harmony module, the docking port for visiting space shuttles.
"This Node Structural Test Article would be one source of additional ports," Shireman said.
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