By Irene Klotz
Cape Canaveral, Florida
Nasa is considering flying astronauts from Europe and other International Space Station (ISS) partner countries on mini-expeditions aboard the orbital outpost as early as next year.
Under the proposal, a second European crewmember would be added to the planned October 2007 shuttle flight slated to deliver the Columbus research laboratory to the platform.
News of the idea came from Germany's Hans Schlegel, a member of the shuttle crew.
Unlike Schlegel and his five American crewmates who would return home after about a week at the ISS, the second European astronaut would remain aboard the complex for 2- 2.5 months, to begin science experiments in the new lab.
If the proposal was approved, France's Leopold Eyharts would be under consideration for the slot, Schlegel said.
"Right now it's under negotiations; but the position of the international partners is that as soon as their module comes up, [they want] to have an astronaut available onboard who is focusing on activating, checking out and starting the experiment flow on that individual module," Schlegel said.
"It's pretty much supported by all parties," he added.
The proposal would have Eyharts return with the next shuttle crew and a Japanese astronaut take over his slot on the station for another two months. A third rotation would bring Canada's first resident station crewmember to the outpost with the following shuttle flight.
The trio of mini-missions would take the place of one of the existing three, six-month resident slots currently held by Nasa's Michael Lopez-Alegria, Russia's Mikhail Tyurin and Europe's Thomas Reiter.
"There are a number of proposals under consideration," said Melissa Matthews, a spokeswoman with the US space agency. "We can't comment on any specifics at this time."
Nasa eventually plans to expand the station crew to six, full-time resident crewmembers.
Last month, the agency resumed space station construction after a hiatus of nearly four years due to safety upgrades implemented after the 2003 shuttle Columbia disaster.
Nasa has a firm deadline to finish construction of the half-built outpost by 2010 when the shuttle fleet is retired.
The European Space Agency's (Esa) Columbus module will be the first of the partner laboratories to be added to the station, which now includes the United States' Destiny laboratory; the Russian Zvezda service module; the US-financed, Russian-built Zarya propellant and storage module; two airlocks and the Unity connecting node.
Canada provided the station's mobile robotic crane and support equipment.
Before Columbus can fly, however, Nasa must reconfigure the station's electrical system, finish building the station's structural trusses, install two more sets of power-generating solar arrays and deliver a second connecting node to serve as docking port for the partner modules.
The next assembly mission is scheduled for launch in December.