TOKYO — NASA has begun unofficial negotiations with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency on purchasing the H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV), an unmanned cargo transfer spacecraft developed in Japan, as the successor to its space shuttles, which are to retire in 2010.
Behind the move is NASA's concern that the retirement of its space shuttles will make it difficult for the United States to fulfill its responsibilities to deliver water, food and materials to the international space station.
Japan has never sold such an expensive item of space hardware as the $130-million HTV to another country. If a contract is concluded, it would be the biggest in the country's 50-year space development history.
Japan, European nations, Russia and the United States share responsibilities for the delivery of necessary items to the space station, where astronauts stay for long periods to carry out scientific experiments.
Currently, active cargo-transfer spacecraft are the U.S. space shuttle and Russia's Soyuz, both manned, and Russia's Progress and Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle, both unmanned. Japan's HTV will be introduced next year.
The final space shuttle mission is tentatively set for May 31, 2010, and NASA will not be able to begin operating a shuttle successor until 2018 at the earliest. Once the shuttle retires, work will focus on the Ares rocket and Orion capsule that will be used to return astronauts to the moon.
In April, NASA started a project to assist U.S. companies' development of a spacecraft to succeed the space shuttle. However, it is uncertain whether it will be possible for the successor vehicle to be developed in the two years before the space shuttle is decommissioned.
So to bridge the gap between the shuttles and their successors, the United States is considering purchasing the HTV.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said it has been unofficially discussing the matter with NASA since February.