Partnership in space

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MOSCOW. (Yuri Zaitsev for RIA Novosti) - October has brought welcome news. NASA administrator Michael Griffin, on a visit to Moscow, said he looked forward to Russians and Americans flying together to the Moon next decade. International projects, he said, were better paying than national ones.

Meanwhile, Russian-American space cooperation has a history to celebrate. In May 1972, the two superpowers agreed to join forces for progress. Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin and U.S. President Richard Nixon signed an agreement on cooperation in space exploration and utilization.

Three years later, commanders Alexei Leonov of the Soviet Soyuz-19 spacecraft and Thomas Stafford of the American Apollo-18 shook hands in orbit. The Soyuz-Apollo program was in effect a political step. It did not contribute significantly to space exploration. For the next twenty years the effort stalled.

At the same time when the joint mission was prepared quite a few difficulties had to be overcome because each country had its specific program and national technological solutions were often incompatible. The experience came handy when shuttle flights to the Mir space station and construction of the International Space Station began. The ISS remained the only joint field of activity in the post-Soviet period. But American fears that the construction would result in the leaking of national scientific and military secrets were not justified. Actually, the movement was in the opposite direction, as NASA experts admitted.

Cooperation prospects in manned flights that opened up before Russia helped it gain access to the launch services market. During the Cold War, it was closed to the Soviet Union, burdened with all sorts of export restrictions. At the time Russia possessed the most cost-effective launching facilities. But Western telecom companies were unable to use them. If they violated the ban, they could face sanctions.

The joint manned program came to dominate the other and more modest efforts under international projects involving the use of unmanned craft. That was due to the shifting of emphasis from unmanned to manned activities and retrenchment of space funding in Russia. The plans to launch the Spektr-Rentgen-Gamma astrophysical observatory in the 1990s never came to pass. Russia was just unable to deliver its part of the project. The costly scientific payload manufactured in America and other countries remained uncalled-for.

Mars exploration has always been a priority both in the Russian and American space programs. That prompted a desire to coordinate the two as well as other planetary studies. The sides even set up two task groups to define research goals that could be reached at minimum cost. The groups came to be called "Mars Together" and "Fire and Ice."

Mars Together was to work out a concept of a joint flight by research laboratories to the red planet. The idea was to combine an American Explorer launch with Russia's Mars-96 mission. Consideration was also given to other alternative plans after 1998, including bringing samples of Martian soil back to Earth.

Fire and Ice was to be concerned with two extreme points of the solar system - the Sun and the remotest planet of its system, Pluto. A spacecraft expected to fly towards the Sun would have been a combination of an American unmanned probe and a Russian optical module. Two American stations were to be launched towards Pluto by Russia's Proton vehicle. Each of them was to carry Russian detachable modules to effect a rendezvous with the planet or its satellite Charon. But, despite agreed political backing, the projects were never realized.

The results of Mars Together were more positive. Admittedly, the Russian Mars-96 automatic probe with an international instrument package proved a failure, missing its interplanetary trajectory. But later the U.S. and Russia agreed to install Russian instruments on American stations bound for Mars. The first two such launches were abortive. Success only came in 2001, with the Mars-Odyssey station. The High Energy Neutron Detector (HEND) developed at Russia's Space Research Institute and mounted on it fulfilled its mission: it discovered vast water reserves directly under the surface layer of Martian soil.

On October 3, in Moscow, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the launching of the first-ever satellite, Russian Space Agency head Anatoly Perminov and NASA administrator Michael Griffin signed an agreement on new scientific projects, LEND and DAN, which are to continue Russian-American Mars and Moon cooperation.

The Russian LEND (Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector) instrument is in effect a cousin of HEND and designed to be carried aboard the American Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). Its mission is to find water in permanently shaded craters near the lunar poles.

Russia's DAN (Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons) instrument will take part in the American MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) mission, which is scheduled to kick off in 2009. A Martian rover will be landed on the planet's surface for its instruments, including DAN, to measure water content of Martian soil as it advances.

Other questions examined during the meeting were the functioning of the International Space Station and completion of its assembly by 2010.

In the view of Susan Eisenhower, the granddaughter of Dwight Eisenhower and President of the Eisenhower Institute, what occurred following the Columbia disaster demonstrated Russia's absolutely key role in the ISS program. If it had not been for Russian vehicles, she said, the station would have been stranded without any means of delivery, be it crew or cargo.

Russia practically alone saved the project.

Today the ISS participants have different views on its operating life. The U.S. has already announced it will pull out of the program by the end of 2015. The European Space Agency has, in turn, stressed it is not going to subsidize NASA's portion of the project if that happens. Only Russia plans to run the station presumably until 2020.

Meanwhile, as with the Mir station, ISS developers were little concerned with wishes of the station's end-users, or scientists. The scientific community was served up with a completed project which, in expert view, was not fit enough for long-term use as a research platform.

Things have been made worse by the failure to bring up the crew complement to the planned strength of six, and spacemen are catastrophically short of time even to maintain the station's systems.

We now hear talk of using the ISS as a "jumping-off ground" for manned flights beyond the near-Earth orbit. If such a mission had been considered at an early stage in the station'sconstruction, its history might have been different.

Currently, specialists are discussing a manned expedition to Mars and are even naming a date. In the view of Roald Sagdeyev, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who was director of the Space Research Institute for 14 years, no space power, however developed, would risk such a flight on its own. For it, this would be not only a costly project. Any failure, let alone death in orbit, could compromise the very idea of space expansion. In a multi-national undertaking the participating countries can "hide" behind each other's backs and share responsibility.

On the other hand, despite the successes of recent years, Mars will remain a problematic planet for a long time to come, and will have to be explored with unmanned devices and through wide-ranging international cooperation.

The cooperative efforts of the American and Russian space communities have already produced such scientific and engineering results as are unlikely to have been achieved within such a short space of time had they acted single-handed, Sagdeyev believes.

Yury Zaitsev is an analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Space Research.

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

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