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.
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.
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.
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."