The U.S. has no option but to use Russia's Soyuz craft


MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti) - After 2010, the United States will likely be unable to deliver its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) on its own.

 For several years Russia's Soyuz craft will remain the only vehicle available to do that, and the U.S. may find it hard to do without Russian cooperation.

During Senate hearings on Wednesday, September 17, William Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, said the U.S. is depending on Russia for its ISS flights and that the Bush administration was in support of a Congressional amendment to exempt Russia's Soyuz vehicles from existing sanctions.

On Tuesday, September 23, the U.S. Congress will consider an amendment, supported by President George W. Bush, allowing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to buy Russian Soyuz spacecraft and launch services.

The Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 had banned the purchase of Russian space technologies. The act said the ban would be in effect as long as Russia cooperated with Iran in nuclear technologies.

Following the Columbia shuttle disaster, Russia's Soyuz and Progress spacecraft remained the only means of delivering crew and cargo to the ISS. The Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) bluntly said NASA should contribute to flight costs.

The American space agency in turn offered to deliver one Russian cosmonaut to the station if Russia agreed to include one American astronaut in a Soyuz crew to make team rotation easier. But the plan ran into difficulties over shuttle service resumption dates. Additionally, the shuttles' reliability is increasingly in question.

In September-November 2005, the Congress amended, and George W. Bush approved, the Nonproliferation Act concerning purchases of Russian spacecraft. The act was not scrapped, however, but put on hold. NASA was cleared to purchase Russia's ISS services through January 1, 2012.

In December 2005, Russia signed a $43.8 million contract with the U.S. to return the U.S. commander of the 12th expedition (ISS-12) from the ISS in April 2006, to launch and return his fellow citizen, flight engineer of the 13th expedition (ISS-13), send American cargo on Russian Progress and Soyuz vehicles to the station early in 2006, and also book a slot on the Soyuz rescue ship for an American member of the ISS-13 in case of an emergency landing.

In October 2006, NASA and Russia concluded another agreement, worth $160 million, to deliver ISS-14, ISS-16 and ISS-18 astronauts to the station on three Soyuz vehicles during 2006-2008. The agreement also stipulated the delivery to the station in 2007-2008 of American cargo with a total weight equivalent to the payload of two Progress ships.

Finally, in April of last year, NASA signed a $719 million contract with Roscosmos for the rotation of crew members of the ISS American segment, use of the Russian rescue ship, and delivery of cargo to the station during 2009-2011.

The contract proved the largest ever in the history of cooperation between the two countries. Previously, the financial record was a $473 million Russian-American agreement for seven long-duration expeditions of NASA astronauts to the Mir station and nine shuttle dockings with it in the course of four years.

Under the 2007 contract, Russia is to deliver to and return from the station a total of 15 American astronauts: six in 2009, six in 2010 and three in 2011. Russian ships will also deliver and return 6 tons of American payload. NASA has likewise bought an option to deliver to the ISS a 1.4 ton payload on a Russian docking and cargo module. Its launch on a shuttle vehicle is scheduled for 2010. NASA has further booked an additional slot on the station's permanent crew for a six-month term in 2009. It will be offered to the administration's overseas partners in the project.

All members of the ISS American segment in 2009-2011 and an extra crew member in 2009 will be arriving at the station on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. No complete American crews are planned for these vehicles. Ship commanders will be Russian cosmonauts.

In January 2004, George W. Bush announced the Constellation program providing for the development of a new manned space vehicle called the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) (which in 2006 was renamed Orion) for flights to the ISS, the Moon and Mars. It was said that the Space Shuttle fleet and system would be decommissioned after 2010. In the intervening period, NASA planned to use Russian Soyuz vehicles.

But events in South Ossetia soured relations between Russia and the United States. American politicians began voicing doubts, quite unreasonably, that the agreement with Russia on additional slots on Soyuz craft would remain in effect.

Bill Nelson, a Florida Senator, was the first to express such fears on August 14. Later, he was echoed by several more high-ranking officials, who feared that after 2010, with the shuttles dropping out of service, American astronauts would have no access to the ISS. NASA's problem would linger as long as until 2015. A new "enabling" document under present circumstances was, in their view, unlikely.

They suggested that work on the new American launch vehicle Ares-1 and the manned craft Orion be accelerated and measures taken to extend shuttle service until new space transport systems became operational.

The Orion, meanwhile, is experiencing both technical and financial difficulties. Its first test flight scheduled for 2013 has been pushed back to 2014.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin has described extending the service life of the hopelessly outdated shuttles, costing an additional $4 billion, as a jihad. Hence, he believes, the first and most obvious likelihood is that there will be no American astronauts or cosmonauts from U.S. or international partners on the space station after December 31, 2011. Only Russians will be there, he said.

The American concern has not a leg to stand on: Russia has always been noted for the scrupulous observance of its commitments. It never broke them even during the Cold War. Still, it will not give free rides to the Americans. The problem needs to be solved before 2009: Russian ships have a two-year production cycle.

Russia does not yet believe that the Americans can quit a multi-billion dollar project and let down their European, Canadian and Japanese partners. What's more, Griffin said the ISS's life could be extended beyond the established deadline of 2015. He said the U.S. was committed to building and using the station for most of the next decade. He added that the ISS held the main niche in U.S. space policy over the coming years and that medical and biological research on it would contribute to future Moon and Mars expeditions.

The ISS situation is not a dead-end one, and solutions will be found, if only because both sides are interested.

If worst comes to worst, Russia and the European Space Agency could together run the ISS without American participation. Aside from Russia's facilities for transporting astronauts and supplies to the station, the European Automated Transfer Vehicle - Advanced Return Vehicle (ATV-ARV) system could chip in. Russia and the ESA are also working jointly on a manned transport system expected to be developed by 2015.

According to Vladimir Solovyov, flight director for the Russian segment, ISS systems are already capable of supporting a six-member crew, and in the future with new Russian modules, of bringing it to 10-member strength.

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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