TURIN, Italy -- The large Thales Alenia Space Italy plant here is looking to two events in the coming weeks to determine whether a facility built to provide infrastructures for manned space flight needs to find some other line of work to survive.
Company managers said decisions expected Nov. 25-26 on how Europe will develop its own manned spaceflight program, including further contributions to the international space station (ISS), will be crucial to the company's space infrastructures and transportation division.
European governments are scheduled to meet then in The Hague, Netherlands, to plot Europe's mid term space budget and program priorities.
The employees at the facility here are particularly interested in seeing whether these governments are willing to start Europe down the long road toward its own manned space program.
Thales Alenia Space Italy is seeking a second, related work package from Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., through NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Thales Alenia is on Orbital's team vying to build cargo carriers to bring supplies to and from the station.
Depending on how NASA's space station re supply plans evolve, an Orbital-Thales Alenia Space team conceivably could end up competing for station re supply business against Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) manufacturing consortium, which includes Thales Alenia Space as the builder of the ATV outer shells. Astrium Space Transportation's Bremen, Germany, division is prime contractor for ATV.
The first ATV cargo-supply ship was docked successfully to the station earlier this year and then de orbited after six months. Current ATV vehicles are burned up in controlled re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.
Luigi Maria Quaglino, general manager of the Turin facility, said he views the Orbital and ATV work as complementary, especially since ESA is providing NASA ATV flights as part of Europe's noncash payment for its use of the station's utilities.
Quaglino said that a year ago, the company was pessimistic about its future space station work because the United States appeared resolved to retire the space shuttle in 2010. Additionally, NASA's long-range budgets fueled speculation that it may no longer take part in station activities beyond 2016, a decision that would have called into question Europe's own use of the facility.
But in recent months NASA officials have suggested that U.S. use of the station would continue well beyond 2016, and that the shuttle's retirement might also be delayed.
In addition to building ATVs and, potentially, structures for Orbital's COTS vehicles , Thales Alenia Space built three Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) payload carriers that are brought to the station by the shuttle.
Any extension in the service life of the space shuttle or the space station means more likely use of the MPLM units, including the possibility of having one docked permanently to the station.
Quaglino and Dino Brondolo, director of the space infrastructures and transportation division, spoke to reporters here Nov. 17 during a live video of the Leonardo MPLM being docked to the space station.
The Leonardo MPLM carried gear to permit the station to accommodate six astronauts on a full-time basis. Up to now the orbital facility has had three permanent crew.
Quaglino said Thales Alenia Space hoped to learn by the end of this year whether its COTS work with Orbital will generate substantial business volume.
On the European Space Agency side, the Nov. 25-26 meeting of governments is expected to approve fresh funding for continued use by Europe of the space station, and construction of three more ATV cargo carriers.
Current plans are to launch ATVs once every 18 months aboard European Ariane 5 rockets.
ESA is asking its governments for nearly 1.4 billion euros ($1.8 billion ) to cover station-related costs, including ATV production, through 2012. Another 220 million euros is being sought to fund a microgravity experiment program.
Thales Alenia Space has penciled in for its internal planning the launch of six ATVs between 2010 and 2015, but company officials say this scenario remains uncertain.
Thales Alenia Space also is providing two of the three Node modules that connect space station elements. Boeing built the third Node. The first Italian-built Node was launched in October 2007. Node 3 tentatively is scheduled for a shuttle launch in late 2009 or early 2010.
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Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Space.com and Live Science. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica. Visit him at http://www.sciwriter.us