As space work goes on, Russia key
With shuttle fleet grounded, NASA may need Russia to keep the space station aloft.
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The three astronauts currently aboard the ISS, two Americans and one Russian, are in no immediate danger, experts stress. A three-seat Russian Soyuz landing vehicle is docked with the station and could whisk them Earthward in any emergency. With the food, mail and other provisions being brought by a Russian unmanned Progress M-47 supply craft launched on Sunday, and expected to arrive at the ISS Tuesday, the station's crew is expected to be safe and comfortable until summer.Skip to next paragraph
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The once-proud Soviet space program - designed in part to help bury capitalism - is fast becoming Russia's biggest billboard. Scrounging for money, the Russians once pasted a 30-foot-high giant Pizza Hut advertisement on their Proton booster rocket. Four years ago, PepsiCo Inc. paid the Russians $5 million to inflate a huge replica of a soda can outside the Mir space station. Russia's Space Agency reportedly is negotiating a $400,000 deal with the Italian fashion house of Donatella Versace to design preflight uniforms, training suits, and lounge wear for Russian cosmonauts - with the label prominently displayed. In 2001, a California investor became the first space tourist, paying Moscow $20 million to tag along with two cosmonauts.
These antics were a long way from the Soviet space program's peak, when it launched up to 100 spacecraft a year and commanded huge, though secret, budgets. Last year Russia lofted just 26 satellites.
Still, the Russian space program has some surviving strengths. While the US has concentrated on building a reusable fleet of space shuttles, Russia abandoned its only experiment with this type, the Buran, when the USSR collapsed. That now looks as if it might have been a wise technological decision. Of the three worst disasters to occur in space since the first manned orbit in 1961, two have involved space shuttles.
"Single-use space vehicles are cheaper to build and safer to operate," Roald Sagdeyev, one of Russia's leading space scientists, told Ekho Moskvi radio. Also, Russia has slowly continued evolving its best Soviet-era designs, and officials say they expect to test new models of the Soyuz and Progress within the next year.
However, in contrast to Soviet times, Russia has no spacecraft in reserve. If Russia's space program is to fill the shuttle's shoes, fresh Soyuz and Progress vehicles would have to be built, a process that can take up to two years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But Russian experts say the 30-year-old technology is familiar and production might be accelerated. "What we need is a change in the mind set of our industry leaders," says Valentin Belokon, an aeronautics specialist with the Russian Academy of Sciences. "Our industry still has enormous potential; it used to turn out Soyuz space ships by the dozen and could do so again."
Russia could even take up some of the planned construction tasks for the ISS, which include installing heavy trusses, solar panels, lab modules and sleeping quarters - work the shuttles were supposed to perform.
The Soviet-designed Proton-M booster rocket, which made its maiden flight just two years ago - with substantial American private-sector help - is able to loft a 22-ton payload for far less than the cost of a shuttle launch.
"We are looking at what we can do now, given the resources at hand," says Vyacheslav Mikhailichenko, spokesman for the Russian Space Agency. "Our space program has potential. But the main issue is funding. In this business, if you plan to do something next year, you need the money today."