NASA bosses have given assurances that the United States will carry on with the International Space Station (ISS) programme, no matter what. However, one can only hope that Rosaviakosmos (Russia's aerospace agency) does not have any illusions on this score, particularly since US President George Bush has set out his nation's space programme priorities for the next few decades.
While speaking at NASA headquarters in Washington on January 14, President Bush openly stated that US astronauts would not explore circum-terrestrial space in the near future. He announced that astronauts would fly to the Moon, where they would establish a base, before going on to Mars by 2030. These words are backed up with money. The NASA budget will total $86 billion over the next five years, with the new programme accounting for $11 billion of this total.
At any rate, Russia should now determine its attitude toward the ISS once again, thus deciding the station's future, as well as that of its own manned space missions.
Following the Columbia shuttle disaster on February 1, 2003, and the US decision to ground flights, Russia has had to fly all the supply missions at this stage, which is a virtually backbreaking task. The ISS swallows up almost 50% of Russia's meagre space budget, leaving Moscow in no position to implement other programmes that are essential for any modern, developed state. This, above all, means remote-sensing satellites and communications satellites.
Consequently, more and more people are suggesting that the ISS programme be scrapped, because this orbital station allegedly lacks any scientific value. One US Congressman pointedly called it a space-based UN, which costs a lot, but which produces few results.
Space programmes provide up-to-date scientific data, Rashid Syunyayev, director of Germany's Max Planck institute and full-time member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, noted. He believes that manned missions do not contribute to space research. Mankind is now entering a new Magellan-type era, because current discoveries will revolutionise our concepts of the universe's origin, as well as our ideas about matter's most minute properties, Syunyayev added. "However, astronauts and cosmonauts are not making such discoveries," he stressed. "On the contrary, such discoveries are being made by powerful telescopes aboard automatic spacecraft."
On the other hand, Russia, which has developed orbital stations for more than 30 years, views the ISS as another milestone in this sphere. Russia's Salyut and Mir stations provided the country with great experience in long-duration missions, thus enabling the concerned parties to build the ISS.
As far as the programme's scientific aspects are concerned, it is difficult to disagree with deputy general designer Yury Grigoryev from the Energiya space-rocket corporation. While talking to RIA Novosti, Grigoryev noted that long-duration manned missions were the only way to assess possible terrestrial applications of new engineering solutions.
Russia would obviously have to develop its own transport system, if it decided to go ahead with the ISS programme. The US shuttles are only scheduled to fly until 2010, but the new American space system will only be commissioned in 2014, which leaves a four-year gap to be filled.
Russia's reliable Soyuz craft and Progress carriers have already become obsolete. Moreover, US experience shows that all expensive modern low-orbit satellites can be successfully repaired by the crews of re-usable craft.
Energiya came up with the rather inexpensive Zarya (Dawn) reusable spacecraft design in the early 1990s. It can carry up to eight cosmonauts and put three-tonne payloads into orbit. Zarya vehicles can be launched from Zenith medium-size carrier rockets and spend at least 195 days in orbit, which means that they can serve as ISS rescue vessels.
Russia adopted a political decision on the ISS programme a long time ago. The cost-effective disbursement of funds is our most important task today; such appropriations, which were increased by 55% this year, can seriously influence the entire space program.
One should also keep in mind that space projects, as ISS experience proves, tend to become much more expensive after they leave the drawing board. The United States plans to spend at least $200 billion on lunar research and missions to Mars. However, this programme might eventually prove to be too expensive for Washington, especially as success cannot be guaranteed completely. One can safely say that the US leadership will suggest that Russia use its immense experience in this new undertaking. If this happens, then Russia will have far more opportunities to implement its own space exploration plans.