Image: Station crew
The current occupants of the international space station, NASA astronaut Mike Fincke and Russian commander Gennady Padalka, look over a checklist in the U.S.-built Destiny laboratory module during operations in May.
updated 7/23/2004 4:34:48 PM ET 2004-07-23T20:34:48

The international space station could be expanded beyond its current three crew-member capacity by the end of the decade under an agreement reached Friday by the station’s 16 partners.

The space station would house a permanent crew of as many as six members as early as January 2009 under a deal reached at a meeting in Noordwijk in the Netherlands, involving the heads of the space agencies involved in the station.

The size of the crew depends on the number of Soyuz escape vehicles that can be docked at the space station.

“It’s going to have to be some derivative of what a Russian Soyuz vehicle can handle,” said Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesman in Washington. Each Soyuz can fit three people.

Many details still need to be worked out in the next several years, including a construction schedule and the logistics of bringing more food, water and supplies for a larger crew. Also unknown are how the space station’s systems would handle the extra bodies and where extra supplies could be stored, Beutel said.

“You want to make sure the systems are performing well to handle an extra number of people before you put the people up there,” he said.

A crucial step toward the goal of increasing the crew size is the return to flight of NASA’s space shuttle fleet, which is needed to carry parts up to the station to finish its construction. NASA plans the next shuttle flight to be next spring. But once the space station construction is complete in 2010, President Bush has called for the shuttles to be retired.

The shuttles have been grounded since last year after the shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing its seven astronauts. The space station has had two-man crews since then to conserve resources, and is relying exclusively on Russian Soyuz and Progress craft for crew transfers and resupply.

The agreement among the international partners likely will get final approval at a meeting next year.

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