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Grounded Space Station Module May Get New Mission

Engineersat the Kennedy Space Center are cleaning and studying a grounded spacestationmodule that could be launched in a few years as a hub for inflatablehabitatsand technology demonstrations.

KirkShireman, NASA's deputy InternationalSpace Station program manager, said plans tolaunch the newcomponent will depend on the outcome of space budget andpolicy debatesamong Congress and the White House.

IfNASA, an international partner, orcommercial firm wants to add new pieces to the station, there could beashortage of docking and berthing ports on the modules already in space.[Graphic:The International Space Station Explained]

"We'rewaiting on the dust to settle onwhat is NASA and some partnership going to to do in the future forexplorationactivities," Shireman said in an interview last week. "Would it driveus to want to launch this as a source for extra ports?"

Rightnow, Shireman said, the outpost hasenough docking and berthing ports to receive all the visiting cargofreightersplanned over the next few years, including Japan's H-2Transfer Vehicle and commercial automated vehicles beingdeveloped bySpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp.

Thestation also has room to receive a futureU.S. rescue capsule or crew transportation system, according toShireman.

"Unlessthere's something new relativeto exploration, we have enough ports to support the ISS needs,"Shiremansaid.

Butthere are not many extra parking spots ifofficials decided to test exploration systems or add more pressurizedmodulesto the complex.

"Ifyou look at what's on ISS today, wecan run out of available ports pretty quick," Shireman said. "Thereis a possibility that we'll need additional ports on ISS to put aninflatablemodule on there, or to build a vehicle that might go to high Earthorbitinstead of low Earth orbit."

Thespace station has three connectingmodules called nodes that serve as attachment points for internationallaboratories, the shuttle docking system, airlock and other systems.

Alongsideexperimentsand supplies being readied inside the Space Station Processing Facilityat KSC,the NodeStructural TestArticle is being cleaned and analyzed in parallel withhigher-prioritypreparations of hardware scheduled to launch on the final two spaceshuttlemissions.

TheNode Structural Test Article and wasbuilt in the 1990s as a testbed for early space station elements.

Butthe pathfinder module was never launched,and it was stored under a bag outside at the Stennis Space Center inMississippi.

NASAshipped the 15-foot-diameter testarticle to Florida on May 4 on a Super Guppy cargo plane, according toTracyYoung, a KSC spokesperson.

"Wehave it there in a conditionedspace, and the guys at KSC are looking at it as time allows to seewhat, ifanything, we have to do to make it flight-worthy," Shireman said. "Inaddition, we have some folks ? a very small number ? off looking at howcouldit be used."

Youngsaid there is no timetable forcompletion of the structural analysis.

"Wehave no concrete plans,"Shireman said. "All we really did was move it from one place to anotherand dust it off a little bit."

Ifneeded, NASA could launch the module on anunmanned Atlas or Delta rocket in 2013 or 2014, opening up five newberthingports for additional modules by 2015.

"Thequestion is how do we connect ISStogether with exploration. At this point in time, one of the bigdebates iswhat is exploration these days," Shireman said.

"Evenin the context of the president'sbudget announcement in February of this year, there are a number ofthings thatwere discussed - exploration and technology demonstrations - that wouldactually use ISS as a base," Shireman said. "And they would allrequire ports, whether it's a berthing port or a docking port."

Earlyengineering concepts show the testarticle could be attached to the forward end of the Harmony module, thedockingport for visiting space shuttles.

"ThisNode Structural Test Article wouldbe one source of additional ports," Shireman said.

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Stephen Clark

Stephen Clark is the Editor of Spaceflight Now, a web-based publication dedicated to covering rocket launches, human spaceflight and exploration. He joined the Spaceflight Now team in 2009 and previously wrote as a senior reporter with the Daily Texan. You can follow Stephen's latest project at (opens in new tab) and on Twitter (opens in new tab).