By Peter de Selding
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(SPACE.com) -- NASA confirmed to its international space station partners on Wednesday that it plans to return the U.S. space shuttle to flight this year with test launches to the station in the spring and summer and resume assembly of the orbital complex with a shuttle flight in December.
Meeting in Montreal, the heads of the five space agencies building the station: United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada, said they were confident the station's assembly would be completed by the end of the decade despite the more than two-year shutdown of shuttle activity since the February 1, 2003, Columbia accident.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said modifying the remaining shuttle fleet has already cost NASA about $1.5 billion.
At a press briefing following the meeting, the five agency heads stressed their commitment to the space station, the costs of which have have risen for all involved which has added to all the partners' bills because of the facility's dependence on the shuttle for construction.
Europe and Japan are still awaiting launches for their respective main space station laboratories, a job for which the shuttle is needed.
Attending his last heads-of-agencies' meeting before he leaves NASA, O'Keefe said the station's continued operation over the past two years despite the shuttle fleet's grounding is proof of the station partnership's resilience.
He said NASA is committed to delivering its partners' hardware to the station before the shuttle is retired. He repeated the U.S. goal of taking the shuttle out of service in 2010 after performing "the fewest number of flights" as needed to meet NASA's obligations to station construction.
O'Keefe said NASA will use its station experience in developing its space exploration program, which focuses on the moon and Mars rather than on low Earth orbit.
Russian Federal Space Agency Director-General Anatoli Perminov said Russia agrees that the station is useful as a laboratory for longer-range space exploration. But he said any manned missions to Mars could occur only after continued extensive work in low Earth orbit on facilities including the international space station.
Perminov said Russia's immediate goal after the international space station is a manned presence on the moon. He said other space stations, also in low Earth orbit, may be needed before enough experience is gained to permit sending astronauts to Mars.
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