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Analysis: US-Russia Teamwork Unraveling

File photo of Expedition 10s' launch to the ISS on a Russian Soyuz rocket.
by Martin Sieff
Washington DC (UPI) Jan 03, 2005
Russia's announcement this week that U.S. astronauts will get no more free rides on Russian rockets to the International Space Station was not motivated by cash concerns alone: It reflects the beginning of what is likely to be a rapid and alarming freeze in U.S.-Russian relations.

From 2006, we will put U.S. astronauts into orbit only on a commercial basis, Anatoly Perminov, head of Russia's Federal Space Agency announced Tuesday.

The announcement certainly did not come as any bolt from the blue. Ever since the American Columbia Space Shuttle disintegrated in flames during reentry over Palestine, Texas, two years ago, Russia's reliable, old Soyuz-booster systems have been the only way U.S. astronauts could reach the $95 billion International Space Station.

The irony was not lost on the Federal Space Agency's scientists and engineers at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Central Asia. America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration with its $16 billion or more a year budget -- handsomely protected by President George W. Bush despite the agency's miserable record in safety and manned exploration in recent years -- had to rely upon the Russian space program even though it could only operate on less than 10 percent of the budgetary resources of the American one.

To rub home the contrast, manned missions to the ISS carrying U.S. astronauts take off from the Gagarinskaya Launch Complex in Baikonur, the oldest manned launch pad in the world and the same one from which Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in April 1961.

Yet over the past two years, the Federal Space Agency has not billed NASA an extra nickel for carrying its astronauts aloft and they could certainly use the money. Among all the other firsts Russia's legendary space program has notched up, it can now add starting the true era of continued space tourism. Two private tourists have already been orbited around the earth for $20 million each and the Russians are planning to boost their cash-strapped resources by sending up more as well.

Even when this reporter visited Baikonur in July, Federal Space Agency officials were dropping heavy hints that they could not carry NASA forever.

In the past, there has been, in fact, an easygoing quid pro quo arrangement between NASA and the Federal Space Agency. The United States often allowed Russian cosmonauts to hitch a ride to the ISS on its Space shuttles, so in many respects, what Russia has done over the past two years was returning the favor.

But no one in either space program had anticipated that America's venerable shuttle program would be grounded for years by the catastrophic loss of a space shuttle on re-entry.

The remaining American shuttles are still scheduled to become operational again in May 2006. Although that remains the official NASA position, there are vast doubts as to whether it can happen by then. Until it does, hitching rides on Russian boosters remains the only game in town for U.S. astronauts, despite all the multiple billions of dollars a year the U.S. government continues to plow into NASA.

For all the well-publicized financial pressures on the Federal Space Agency involving its commitment to the white elephant ISS, Russia is, in fact, in a better condition to fund its space program and cover unanticipated costs accruing to it than it has been in a decade and a half.

In an ironic contrast, it is America's NASA that is today a glaring example of a nationalized, state-run, unproductive and often incompetent bureaucracy. Russia's Federal Space Agency has long since been forced by tight budgets and the harsh demands of realism imposed by operating in the global market place to scrap its own costly engineer's dreams, such as the Buran space shuttle and concentrate on meat-and-potatoes programs that actually work. These programs include the long-reliable Soyuz, the Progress cargo ship and the successful new Dniepr booster, which was built to send international communications satellites aloft and adapted from the old RS-20 intercontinental ballistic missile -- long known in the West by its NATO designation, the SS-18 Satan.

Also, with the Russian government's revenues booming from unprecedented energy export revenues thanks to soaring global oil prices, Putin could certainly pick up the tab flying U.S. astronauts for a few more months or years if he wanted to.

However, the decision to make America pay -- and probably through the nose -- for riding Soyuz boosters was never just about economics alone. Ever since the dramatic space race during the Cold War was followed in the mid-1970s by a U.S.-Soviet joint manned mission in space, cooperation in manned space programs between the two main thermonuclear powers has been a barometer of their relations, or lack of them.

The ISS itself was a testament to the end of the Cold War and a supposed new lasting partnership between the two former superpower rivals.

Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin worked hard over the past four years to keep this partnership going. Often, both of them appeared to be single-handedly resisting powerful forces of old prejudice and new resentments in their own countries to maintain cooperation, especially in the war against terror.

But today, Putin is said to be fuming in the Kremlin at the defeat of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych, whom Putin even twice visited Ukraine to campaign for, at the hands of fiercely pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko.

Yushchenko and his top advisers have made quite clear they are determined to rush Ukraine into the 25-nation European Union -- and even into the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- as quickly as possible. That would be the biggest blow to Russia's power and clout in Eurasia and in the areas covered by the old Soviet Union since the collapse of the Soviet system 13 years ago.

Also, the pattern of foreign policy appointments in Bush's second term team involved a virtual purge of the remaining old guard figures from the era of his father, the first President Bush, who were architects of cooperation and détente with the Soviet Union and Russia. Moscow policymakers now grimly anticipate an era of increased pressure on Russia from Washington and many European capitals.

Therefore, Perminov's announcement should not be seen simply as a reflex of financial pressures on Russia's space program. It is, rather, a red light warning that the long era of easygoing U.S.-Russian cooperation in space is rapidly coming to an end. And that could be the harbinger of far worse problems to come.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2005 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.

All rights reserved. � 2004 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 United Press International.

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