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U.S.-Russian Space Cooperation in Doubt

Unease spreads on former Soviet side

3 min read

14 April 2004--The grounding of the U.S. shuttle fleet last year after the Columbia disaster and the increasingly parlous state of the International Space Station have left the United States more dependent than ever on its erstwhile rival Russia for support. Yet the Bush administration's redirection of U.S. space efforts to emphasize manned missions to the Moon and possibly to Mars has unleashed an avalanche of questions in the former Soviet state, leaving partners deeply confused about how to make constructive proposals for future cooperation.

At the heart of the uncertainty are NASA budget projections implying that all U.S. financial support for the International Space Station will end in 2016, along with recent White House hints that support may continue longer after all, with money coming from the space exploration budget [see " Budget Breakdown," IEEE Spectrum, April 2004]. Uncertainty about fundamentals like that have left NASA partners wondering what's really going on.

"They [the Americans] have not made a single step to meet our offers [of cooperative help] --neither do they give us any clues on their future intentions," says Yuri Grigoriev, a deputy designer general at RKK Energia, Moscow, Russia's prime contractor in the ISS project. "My impression is they are rather lost," Grigoriev told IEEE Spectrum in a telephone interview.

An engineer who joined the legendary Russian space development firm at the height of the race to the Moon in the 1960s, Grigoriev has spent the last decade forging closer ties between the U.S. and Russian manned space-flight programs. Among his many duties was to sit on the Stafford-Anfimov commission, an advisory group of leading experts from the two countries, which evaluates issues of space cooperation.

Always outspoken about problems hampering the Russian space industry, Grigoriev outlined serious challenges facing the space station program.

At this time, because of the Shuttle's grounding, no major elements of the space station, including all-but-ready European and Japanese laboratories, can be shipped to it--for months to come at least. To make matters worse, even if the shuttle were flying, inadequate rescue capabilities would continue to limit the space station's crew to three, leaving no room for permanent European or Japanese researchers.

As a result, Grigoriev reminded Spectrum, partners who have invested millions of dollars and years of work in the station are reaping few of the benefits they expected. Russian attempts to sell NASA or Europe a second Soyuz lifeboat to enable the emergency evacuation of an additional three crew members from the station have gone nowhere. (At present, two cosmonauts are working aboard the space station.)

Meanwhile, critical space station systems have begun to degrade. First, a Russian-built oxygen generator failed and had to be replaced with a brand-new unit delivered from Earth. Then, in March, a second of four U.S.-built gyrodynes--complexes of electrically driven wheels, which maintain the station's attitude in space--stopped working. Even with the failure of a third unit, the space station could still be correctly oriented, but frequent firing of the control thrusters would be required, consuming precious propellant reserves, Grigoriev explained.

Gyrodynes are too bulky to fit into the Russian Progress cargo ship, currently the only supply line to the station. For that reason, Russian space officials have begun to brace themselves for the possibility of sending up extra Progress tankers to refuel the station, he said.

Admittedly, in his 14 January speech announcing the new U.S. space initiative, President George W. Bush acknowledged Russian contributions to the space station and invited U.S. allies to join in the new Moon-Mars venture. But captains of the Russian space program were initially skeptical. "I suspect this might be more of election politics [than a serious intention]," Grigoriev says, echoing the reaction of Yuri Koptev, until recently the director of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, Rosaviakosmos.

Immediately following Bush's speech, Koptev dismissed it as an election-year gimmick. Yet only a few weeks later, he indicated that Russia may want to be aboard if Bush's space initiative is indeed for real. Koptev revealed that RKK Energia was developing a new vehicle, capable of replacing the reliable but cramped Soyuz, a workhorse of the Russian program since the late 1960s.

Called Kliper (Clipper), the spacecraft is designed as a partially reusable wingless glider capable of carrying six crew members into the Earth orbit or beyond. It turns out that RKK Energia has been quietly working on the vehicle since 2000, and so Koptev's high-profile disclosure of the project just one month after Bush's space speech can hardly be a coincidence.

With Russians and Americans exchanging complaints about who is the more unreliable partner, unexpected developments in Moscow further muddied the water. In March, the Putin government replaced Koptev as head of the aviation and space agency. Koptev had led the organization since its formation in 1992 and had a reputation as a progressive leader, one who worked hard to maintain a close relationship with the United States. His successor is a former commander of the Russian Military Space Forces, General Anatoly Perminov.

Grigoriev, though he knows little about the personality and attitude of the new Russian space boss, expressed concern that the change in agency leadership could further delay progress in resolving critical space station issues. "[The agency] does not have much time for the station now," Grigoriev said, "New people are in town. They need time to form the team, to figure out what's going on."

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