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Keep space station past 2015, pleads ESA chief

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The head of the European Space Agency (ESA) has called for the International Space Station (ISS) to be kept in service until at least 2020. At present the station - the only manned space effort currently underway - is not planned to keep operating past 2015.

"I am convinced that stopping the station in 2015 would be a mistake," Jean-Jacques Dordain tells the BBC. "We cannot attract the best scientists if we are telling them today 'you are welcome on the space station but you'd better be quick'".

The first two modules of the ISS were launched and joined together in 1998, but it is still not complete. However the last non-Russian modules proper are set for launch this February aboard the space shuttle Endeavour (a pressurised module carried aboard shuttles on ISS missions will also be left at the space station later this year). Under current plans the final component, a Russian lab module named "Nauka", will be delivered on a Proton rocket late in 2011 - just four years before the ISS's planned demise.

The way ahead for the station is uncertain, largely because the entire US manned spaceflight plan is in disarray right now. While the ISS has significant participation from many other nations - and it seems likely that only Russia will soon be able to carry crews to and from it, once the US space shuttle fleet retires - America remains by far the best-funded space player.

However the existing manned space plan for NASA, as set out by former President Bush - which would have seen a return to the Moon in the next decade and then boots on Mars within a generation - is known to be impossible given the agreed NASA budget. The Obama administration has yet to set out exactly what will replace it.

Europe - or anyway the ESA, which isn't quite the same thing* - has focused much of its space effort on the ISS in recent times. The station provides an ESA astronaut's principal opportunity to fly in space (a Belgian, Frank De Winne, became ISS commander in 2009). The ESA also helps deliver supplies to the station using its Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) robo-capsule, launched aboard Ariane rockets. The second ATV supply run is set for late 2010, dubbed "Johannes Kepler".

Blighty, though a large ESA contributor, has always refused to fund manned spaceflight. Despite that, the agency has recently selected a British astronaut, army helicopter pilot Tim Peake, in a move seen by many as an attempt to get the UK to change its stance.

"He was among the top candidates even if he is a Brit," said Dordain at the time.

Even if full British backing were to be forthcoming, however, the ESA will still have to wait on Mr Obama regarding the future of the ISS. ®

* The ESA works closely with Brussels, but it isn't part of the European Union apparatus and its list of member states is different. Many EU nations aren't in the ESA, and some ESA countries aren't in the EU (Canada, for instance).

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