Space Agencies Back Int'l Station

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, right, gestures as NASDA President Shuichiro Yamanouchi, center, from Japan and Canadian Space Agency Director Savi Sachdev, left, during a news conference in Monterey, Calif., Tuesday, July 29, 2003. Leaders of the world's space agencies voice support for the continuing operation of the international space station despite cost overruns and logistical problems caused the the grounding of the U.S. space shuttle program. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
Leaders of the world's space agencies voiced continued support Tuesday for the international space station despite the delays, burdens and logistical problems caused by the grounding of the U.S. space shuttle fleet following the Columbia disaster.

The five chiefs, representing the agencies of the United States, Europe, Canada, Japan and Russia, met for the first time since the Feb. 1 Columbia accident and agreed to update station planning in light of the grounding of the remaining shuttles.

"The Columbia tragedy is not just NASA's tragedy — it's our tragedy," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency.

In a meeting with reporters after the talks, which started Sunday, the space administrators said any decisions about future construction of the station must await the shuttle program's return to flight.

Sean O'Keefe, NASA's administrator, said he briefed the international partners on the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Though the board's final report is not expected until next month, O'Keefe said he has been assured that it will contain no items that have not already been publicly discussed.

O'Keefe, however, said the shuttles would return to flight no earlier than late winter or early spring of 2004.

The members at the meeting were not specific about any changes to the program. O'Keefe said once the shuttles resume flying, the focus will be on safety.

O'Keefe also said some of the changes could affect the frequency of flights. New launch rules limit flights to daylight so the vehicle can be filmed.

In the meantime, the space station continues to be manned by NASA astronaut Ed Lu and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko. Russian space vehicles are being used to ferry crews and supplies to the station until the shuttles resume flight.

Yuri Koptev, director of the Russian Aerospace Agency, said the Columbia crash and subsequent grounding of the fleet has put an added burden on his financially strapped nation. But, he said, the project is too important to abandon.

"Sometimes a partner has to take more responsibility," he said. "When such big projects are involved, there is no other way to do it."