The Shuttle's return to flight is fast approaching. On 6 April, Discovery arrived on its launch pad. The first mission since the catastrophe in February 2003 is now scheduled for mid-May.
The resumption of flights is of great importance for the International Space Station. It will allow more frequent service visits to pursue the construction of the orbital complex and allow long duration missions for three astronauts -- instead of two.
One European astronaut in particular is looking forward to this moment. Thomas Reiter won't be leaving on Discovery in May but he is due to stay six to seven months in the Station.
Thomas Reiter and his backup, French astronaut Leopold Eyharts, are both members of the corps of European astronauts. They have been training together for the long duration mission at various sites, including Star City near Moscow: language lessons, theoretical and practical study classes and survival exercises.
"Our days of training here are long and finish only when we are absolutely ready for the next phase of the preparation," explains Thomas Reiter. "There is so much to do that we are often working at weekends. In this business, one needs to be dedicated and have a lot of motivation."
But Reiter is an old hand at the game. Aged 47, the test pilot and squadron leader now specialised in aerospace technology, is qualified to fly both in the Russian Soyuz capsules and aboard the American Shuttle.
In 1995, Reiter was a flight engineer on the Euromir-95 mission, spending 179 days in the Russian Mir orbital complex. On that occasion he made two space walks. It was an exceptionally long stay in space for a European astronaut, surpassed only once by France's Jean Pierre Haignerι who stayed 188 days.
"Being in weightlessness for a long period, with each day exceptional views of our planet, is fascinating. On a long duration mission in a space station, looking out of the portholes, one feels very much at home."
Reiter and Eyharts are not the only ones looking forward to the Shuttle's return to flight, the next steps in the ISS construction and the prospect of long duration missions.
Each manned space flight is an occasion to increase European competences. For instance, all the operational teams at ESA's Columbus control centre located at Germany's DLR space agency at Oberpfaffenhoffen near Munich were at their consoles on 15 April for the start of the Eneide mission.
Roberto Vittori's lift-off from Baοkonour for his ten-day mission to the International Space Station was followed with great attention. The centre will be at the heart of activities once ESA's Columbus laboratory module has been launched and is part of the orbital complex, providing Europe with a unique science laboratory.
"Before Columbus is launched, this centre is focussed mainly on the control and coordination of European experiments flying on the ISS," explains Jens Schiemann, ESA manager at Oberpfaffenhoffen. "Some experiments are controlled directly by investigator teams in their laboratories, but overall coordination is managed here."
Each short mission, such as Roberto Vittori's, is an opportunity to test flight and in-orbit procedures for longer and more complex ones. The DLR centre also expects much more attention from the public.
"Thomas Reiter's next long duration mission is certain to increase public awareness, particularly in Germany, for what we are doing and space activities in general," says DLR's Thomas Kuch, deputy director of the control centre.
The Shuttle's return to flight is thus a major step not just for the United States but for all the partners of the International Space Station. Longer duration missions and the arrival of the Columbus laboratory will be the next steps in this exciting adventure.
But when relaxing and playing his guitar, Thomas Reiter dreams of an even further future.
"A journey to our nearest neighbour Mars cannot exactly be compared to a long duration flight in the ISS in orbit around the Earth. But if I let myself go, and imagine having my two feet on the Martian soil, then I feel a kind of exhilaration and I'm really excited about the future of spaceflight."
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