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NASA, Russia Head Toward Showdown in space

The Soyuz is currently the only available transport to the 50 billion dollar space station languishing in orbit at taxpayer's expense.
by Irene Mona Klotz
Cape Canaveral (UPI) Apr 21, 2004
NASA once again is about to find itself in the unenviable position of playing mouse to the big Russian space cat called Soyuz.

Soyuz has been a good friend to the United States in its time of need, steadily keeping crews and supplies moving to and from the International Space Station while NASA searches for firmer footing from which to fly its space shuttles following the February 2003 Columbia disaster.

It is not that NASA has been ungrateful for the rides to space, and the Russians, presumably, have been understanding about a U.S. ban on the outright purchase of Soyuz and other space transportation services due to weapons proliferation concerns. Like a good partner, Russia has kept its Soyuz and Progress rockets flying to the outpost in fulfillment of station's contractual agreements.

The problem is NASA is not Russia's only space pal. The other customers for space transportation services also come to the bargaining table with checkbooks.

Dutch researcher Andre Kuipers, representing the European Space Agency, is the latest beneficiary of Russian space commerce, having reached the orbital outpost Wednesday morning for a week-long stay. Aspiring space tourist Greg Olsen of New York, is in training for a flight next April.

"The flight is confirmed," Rob Volmer, who represents Olsen's space travel agency Space Adventures, told United Press International.

Russia evidently wants to fly Olsen with another paying ESA astronaut.

"We are in negotiation with our Russian friends on two more flights: one in April next year, probably with an Italian ESA astronaut, and one in October 2005," ESA spokesman Dieter Isakeit wrote in response to an e-mail query from UPI.

That would leave one seat open for a Russian pilot on the April Soyuz transport -- and no room for a NASA on the three-person ship. Instead, the Russians propose to leave the next station crew, scheduled to launch in October, in orbit for a year and use the April ride home to return the visiting crew. Fresh Soyuz capsules are flown to the station every six months to serve as emergency escape vessels for the onboard crew. Returning crews -- or, in this case, tourists -- fly home aboard the Soyuz capsule that has reached its six-month design lifetime.

NASA opted to call Russia's hand. Michael Kostelnik, the agency's deputy associate administrator for spaceflight, sent a letter to Rosaviakosmos, the Russian space agency, explaining NASA was not yet ready to keep the October-bound Expedition 10 crew in space for a year. The agency said there is not adequate equipment aboard for crews to use to counteract the negative medical effects of extended stays in weightlessness.

"We're not saying 'no,'" spokesman Allard Beutel told UPI. "We're saying 'not yet.'"

NASA tried that rationale three years ago when Russia wanted to fly tourist Dennis Tito to the outpost. In a bitter and losing argument, NASA said the station was not yet ready to receive visitors. Russia flew Tito anyway, leaving NASA only a face-saving move shortly before liftoff -- granting Tito access to the U.S. segments after Russia agreed to develop and abide by future guidelines for spaceflight participants.

Though Russia theoretically remains bound by that agreement, the threat of NASA nixing paying tourist and ESA visits to the station doesn't seem to have much steam. With its shuttle fleet grounded for at least another year, NASA must choose its battles wisely. Furthermore, on the issue of extending station mission duration, NASA may not have a choice.

As the new station crew and the visiting ESA astronaut settled aboard the space station early Wednesday, Yuri Semenov, head of Russia's powerful space conglomerate Energia, told reporters in Moscow the next mission of station crew should be extended to one year.

"We have a very strong position that the next crew needs to be flying for a longer duration flight onboard the station," Semenov said through a translator. "We just heard (NASA is) not ready. We think that we are ready, hardware-wise, and so that's our position. Based on that position, we are going to prepare our vehicles and our hardware."

Even if NASA is able to keep the shuttle on scheduled for a March 2005 return to flight, its first two post-Columbia missions will not include station crew rotations, Beutel said.

Also complicating the issue is the 2006 completion of Russia's contractual obligations to supply launch services and emergency escape ships to the station. With its own escape ships still in the planning phase, NASA is dependent on Russia to continue supplying Soyuz vehicles for the foreseeable future. It also must find a way to do so without outright purchases, which have been banned by Congress under the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000.

Last, NASA's contention that astronauts are not yet ready for year-long stays in space pales in face of Russian facts: Four cosmonauts already have spent a year or more in orbit, apparently without long-lasting ill-effects.

It appears the wobbly legs on which NASA needs to focus are not those of its returning astronauts, but the foundations -- and the stark realities -- of its space partnerships.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2004 by United Press International. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by United Press International. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of by United Press International.

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Any heavy-lift booster based on the failed technology of the Space Shuttle will certainly be too expensive and dangerous to be the basis of a viable manned Moon or Mars program. Any short-term answer to the lift deficit should be based on the newer, cheaper technology derived from the EELV program writes Jeffrey F. Bell.

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