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Analysis & Opinion
26.06.08 Getting Closer In Space
By Sergei Balashov

After the tragic accident that destroyed the Columbia shuttle in 2003, crippling the U.S. space shuttle program by bringing it to a halt until 2005, Russian aircraft have been servicing the International Space Station (ISS). But as another crisis looms, Russia is once again seen as the only party available to help. Yet despite the assurances of the importance of such a partnership, the United States might not want too much of Russia’s aid, while the Russians are eager to take advantage of the only field in astronautics where they still have the edge.

“The loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia has underscored the historic role of the United States and Russia as partners in space exploration, having persevered despite tragedy and adversity,” said U.S. President George Bush following the Columbia Shuttle accident. “During this challenging time, our partnership has deepened and the International Space Station Program remains strong.”

The partnership did indeed deepen. Russian Soyuz flights were used to fly American astronauts to the ISS and back home at a cost of $21.8 million per passenger. The U.S. congress even went so far as to amend the Iran Nonproliferation Act, lifting restrictions on the purchase of Russian spacelift hardware, which had been in place since 2000, allowing NASA to enhance its partnership with Russia.

“Building a strong space flight partnership with our colleagues in Russia has yielded many benefits. This has been particularly evident since the loss of Columbia,” said Assistant Administrator for External Relations for NASA John Schumacher in a statement to the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House of Representatives. “The redundancy and unique capabilities provided by Russian spacecraft have made it possible for the ISS Partnership to maintain a crew aboard the Space Station, despite the grounding of the Space Shuttle fleet. This has also allowed the ISS Partnership to continue ISS operations and scientific research, and to prepare for a resumption of construction of the ISS, once the Space Shuttle fleet returns to flight status.”

Just last year, NASA extended its contract with Russia until 2011, covering crew rotation for 15 members from 2009 through 2011 and buying a flight opportunity to and from the station for 2009. The extension was worth $719 million.
Another test is coming as the American space shuttles are set for retirement in 2010. The United States is working on the Constellation project, aimed at developing advanced spacecraft meant to replace the current fleet. Still, a gap in the timeframe between the closure of the Space Shuttle program and the launch of new vehicles is inevitable, leaving the United States likely without its own spacecraft capable of flying astronauts to the ISS from 2010 to 2015, when the replacement transport will be ready.

Russian carriers, considered to be the safest in the world at the moment, will be the only way to get to and from the ISS during this span. NASA, however, is not looking forward to this situation. While the current price of $21.8 million per passenger will be honored at least through 2011, it has great potential to increase. But the virtually unlimited power Russia has in setting these prices is not NASA’s sole concern.

The unique political relationship that exists between Russia and the United States affects all of the cooperation forms between their governments. Space is no exception, as some of the recent motions aimed at allowing for more Russian help to the American space program have forced the United States to adjust its foreign policy agenda. Amending nonproliferation laws to step up the cooperation and giving Russia additional leverage by making it the lone provider of cargo and human transportation services has not had a positive impact on the U.S. image.

Russia, who still lags behind its longtime rivals when it comes to space research, is more concerned with the financial gains and the opportunity for improvement of its own technologies it will get with NASA’s contracts.
“Comparing the research work that’s done in the United States with the research that we’re doing here is the same as comparing American cars to Zhiguli,” said academic secretary of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences Alexander Zakharov.

This field of research, just like most other fundamental studies, was poorly funded in the 1990s, leaving Russia far behind its longtime rival in space exploration. The lack of funds, however, is just one of the problems this industry faces. “There was a collapse in the last decade, we weren’t getting enough money, but also a lot of people have left and it will be very hard to mend,” continued Zakharov.

The budget of the Russian Federal Space Agency increased by some $500 million over the past three years to a little over $1.5 billion, and is projected to remain at this level until 2011. NASA’s budget for 2008 is $17.3 billion.

“They get ten times more money than we do, and the situation is bad at the moment, but the technological base for the research is better,” said Zakharov. “Maybe if we can keep it up for the next few years, we’ll be as good as our soccer team, and we’ll be able to draw some comparisons to the Americans and be competitive; right now, we can only compare to ourselves, to what we had a decade ago. Presently, our only advantage is in the manned astronautics, which allows us to get astronauts to the ISS,” he added.
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