As space work goes on, Russia key
With shuttle fleet grounded, NASA may need Russia to keep the space station aloft.
Derided for pasting a Pizza Hut logo on its rockets and catering to wealthy "space tourists," Russia could now find itself flying to the rescue.Skip to next paragraph
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Can Soviet-era spacecraft substitute for the shuttle in supporting humanity's grandest science project: the International Space Station (ISS)?
The answer appears to be yes, if the US helps out with cash - a lot of it. Russia's financially strapped space agency is now taking stock of its capabilities.
"We can support the human side of the ISS program, and ensure adequate supplies are brought to the crew," says Georgi Gretchko, a former cosmonaut and space official.
Russia has budgeted for two manned Soyuz launches in 2003 plus three Progress supply flights to the ISS. Those vehicles are almost ready, and one Soyuz could be sent up as early as April - perhaps unmanned, in order to save space and fuel. "Russian ships were always more cost-effective than the shuttle, and with the proper financing we should be able to at least keep the station functioning," Mr. Gretchko says.
"If the ISS project is to continue, it obviously means that Russia must take first place in running the program, at least temporarily," says Sergei Kazyonnov, an expert at the Institute of National Security and Strategic Studies in Moscow. "There is proven technology, and enough skilled people, but the Russian space program is bankrupt. It comes down to money."
The Russian Space Agency's budget, $265 million last year, is dwarfed by NASA's $15.5 billion annual allocation.
Since ditching its own independent orbiter, the Mir, two years ago, Russia's Space Agency has focused more than half its meager resources on meeting its modest ISS obligations, which include the two annual manned visits to the station by Soyuz spacecraft and three by Progress robot supply ships.
The Russian commitment would have to increase significantly to make up for the shuttle's absence. One of NASA's shuttles can heft 30 tons of materiel in a single launch; the payload of a single-engined Progress is less than three tons.
One option could be to remove the crew from the ISS and put it into what is called "dormant mode" until NASA is ready to resume full shuttle operations or some other alternative is developed. But experts fear this could spell doom for the ISS, which is already far beyond its projected budget and several years behind schedule. The station, which is already as big as a football field and weighs 200 tons - it's currently only half finished - also needs to have its orbit corrected periodically to prevent it from sinking into the atmosphere. Without the powerful, six-engined shuttles, this job would have to be performed regularly by several smaller Russian vehicles.
The ISS is a collaborative effort by the USA, Russia, and Europe.
The shuttle catastrophe follows a string of accidents with Europe's Ariane rockets, the only other space program potentially capable of resupplying the ISS. In December, an unmanned Ariane-5 lifter, with two satellites, exploded on its launchpad in a $500-million major setback for Europe's space aspirations.
Following the Challenger explosion in 1986, the US space agency NASA sidelined its shuttles for almost three years while trying to pin down the accident's causes. No one is sure how long the Columbia investigations might take; experts say it will probably be months, if not years. But operations and construction of the ISS - envisaged as a permanent orbiting laboratory and hotel for space explorers - require at least half a dozen annual shuttle visits by NASA's powerful space workhorse.