Brussels, 28 Apr 2004
With Russia's Soyuz spacecraft safely docked to the International Space Station (ISS), Dutch flight engineer André Kuipers has under two weeks to carry out scientific experiments, technological demonstrations and educational activities of great importance to Europe.
Since the grounding of shuttle flights by the US space programme last December, Russia's Soyuz craft have acted as lifeboat cum lifeline for astronauts and cosmonauts living on the International Space Station. Onboard the ninth mission to reach the space station, on 21 April, are its Russian commander Gennady Padalka and US flight engineer Michael Fincke, who will spend six months in space.
Kuipers of the European Space Agency (ESA) is accompanying them for an 11-day mission to conduct an extensive programme of experiments in the fields of human physiology, biology, microbiology, physical science, Earth observation, education and technology.
While onboard, he will do heat tests in what ESA call a 'microgravity science glovebox', the aim of which is to test heat pipes in space to improve their use in cooling systems. But one of Kuipers' first tasks is to transfer biological samples between the European-built Kubik incubators to the ISS. He will perform human physiology experiments, study motion and muscle development in space, and take microbiology samples to investigate bacteria on the station.
Payloads in space
For the lift to the ISS, the ESA is reportedly paying €18 million to the Russian space programme, which is keen to promote fee-paying space flights to offset increased costs since the US groundings last year. A US businessman has expressed interest in becoming the second space tourist after South African Mark Shuttleworth checked into the ISS in 2002. The cost for a once-in-a-lifetime ride to space is around the €20 million mark, reporters are quoting.
With such enormous costs, huge risks and no guarantees of success – as shown by the recent European Mars mission – what does Europe and the rest of the world, now including new space explorers like China and India, hope to gain from this dark and mysterious place? The Dutch government thinks we can learn from missions like the current Delta one, not just through new scientific discoveries but also via educational programmes.
Kuipers, for instance, will set up student experiments studying how bacterial fuel cells and plant growth respond to weightlessness. These were the two winning entries in a government-organised competition. In addition, thousands of schoolchildren will take part in a 'Seeds in space' exercise which the Dutchman will set in motion while onboard the ISS.
The European Union has also invested much in space's potential to deliver new knowledge – science, security, environmental monitoring, etc. – for the benefit of European citizens. While the OURS Foundation, a Swiss-based organisation promoting the cultural dimension of human astronautic achievement, together with the ESA and others, is organising a workshop in Holland next month called 'Space: science, technology and the arts'.