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Russia's space effort: one step forward, two steps backward

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov) - Nikolai Sevastyanov, now a former president of the Energiya Space Rocket Corporation - the flagship company of Russia's space industry - was forced to step down on the last day of July, despite the support of his top management.

Officially, the Russian Space Agency, or Roskosmos, has repeatedly said that Sevastyanov's plans, especially those concerned with manned flights, did not fit into the 2006-2015 Federal Space Program. More than that, they said the former Energiya manager's activities were not in line with the goals facing Russia's ambitions in space. The reference was to a new reusable space transport system and a deep space research program, or missions to the Moon and Mars.

The trouble, however, is that opponents of the disgraced top manager are not in a position to shed light on the situation surrounding the Kliper project or to explain what is being done in this direction.

"By 2014, Russia may drop behind the United States, China and the European Union in manned flights unless it continues developing a new spacecraft. By 2014, the U.S. is planning to complete a new ship, the Orion, which will put up stiff competition against our Soyuz craft on the international market. We may seriously fall behind in technologies by that time," a worried Sevastyanov said.

It was to address that problem that the corporation had developed, mainly with extra-budgetary funds, the well-known spacecraft Kliper, which has suited Roskosmos until now and been a visiting card of Russia's rocket industry at many international air shows, including Russia's MAKS-2005. Now, instead of an almost implemented program, which was, according to Sevastyanov, the reason behind his dismissal, modernization of the Soyuz spacecraft, of fifty years vintage, is being suggested for the hundredth time.

"I think we will finalize the ultimate shape of the manned craft in the near future and submit our proposals to Roskosmos. I think it will be this year," the corporation's newly elected president, Vitaly Lopota, said on July 31. That, however, is no longer news, because this is not the first time the words have been spoken. On the other hand, his remarks about the Kliper are remarkable.

"I can say that we will not put the Kliper on view (at MAKS-2007 - A.K.). In the next few months we will take a close look at this idea, which was once voiced by former corporation manager Yury Semyonov."

Somehow, one gets the feeling that the program for a very modern craft design is being made to appear obsolete. But does it mean, then, that the half-century-old equipment (Soyuz) is really genuine innovation?

Energiya supervises the operation of the Russian segment of the International Space Station and coordinates this unique and technologically very promising international program. But it is not clear how Roskosmos is planning to run the station in the near future with only Soyuz and Progress vehicles.

It is no secret that the Americans may either call a total halt to their orbital activities or reduce them to one-off expeditions that do not require regular flights to the station. We will be lucky if our partners manage to honor their pledge to fly enough shuttles to complete the deployment of the ISS. After that the shuttles will retire to clear the decks and provide money for a new American dream - another mission to the Moon and a flight to Mars.

You can cavil at these plans and Sevastyanov's remarks about mining minerals on the Moon for as long as you like. Your efforts will not materialize in a new craft nor convince anybody that Russia can effectively run the completed orbital complex.

Of course, one can take it easy and continue taking pride in the number of annual launches and link research plans with the number of tourists wishing to have a ride on the ISS. But then it is not clear whether the Russian space effort has any future prospects worth pursuing.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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