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    NO ALTERNATIVE TO SOYUZ CRAFT

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    Yury Zaitsev, RIA Novosti

    Virtually all the main ideas in President George Bush's recent "space speech" were known a week before he made it, as the White House had done a good job of arranging leaks. The new US space exploration plans received extensive attention from officials and independent experts, which allowed the speech to be corrected. Initially, Bush had intended to make no mention of the International Space Station (ISS) project, as excessive spending on it had made it unpopular with his administration. Experts even suggested that the US would abandon the ISS, as it had done with the Kyoto Protocol and the international thermonuclear reactor project. However, this would have made the task of attracting the present ISS partners into new and greater projects even harder. Accordingly, Bush supported the ISS project in every way in his speech and said that the space station would help to carry on research into all the medical problems involved in long flights to other planets. America's goal, he said, was to complete work on the International Space Station by 2010 and fulfil our commitments to the country's 15 partners in the project.

    It was George Bush, it may be recalled, who unexpectedly dealt a great financial blow to the ISS in March 2001. He saw in it too many great ambitions and too much money, when the latter was needed for work on his anti-missile defence programme. The President ordered ISS funding to be cut to one third and the project's $5 billion overshoot by 2001 to be compensated within five years.

    The second and still more powerful blow to the ISS came in the form of the Columbia shuttle disaster. Though the tragic flight had nothing to do with the ISS programme, the entire shuttle fleet was grounded.

    According to the latest schedule, the ISS construction should be completed in January 2008. As the schedule was drawn up before the Columbia crash, the deadline will not be put back. After the Challenger tragedy, US shuttles flights were suspended for 32 months and it is unlikely that the present pause will be shorter. The conclusion reached by the technological assessment directorate of the US Congress indicates that there is a 50% probability that another shuttle may be lost. Will the Bush administration venture to take such a risk before the elections? Obviously not.

    Indeed, the amount of work that needs to be done before shuttle flights can resume means that the first flight can only be made between the end of September and the start of November 2004. The main aim of the flight will not be to service the space station, but to test flight safety measures. On the whole, this means that the US President's promise to complete the ISS's construction by 2010 can only be fulfilled hypothetically. And, again, it would be appropriate to recall that, after the resumption of shuttle flights to the station after the Challenger crash, this time limit was corrected twice. In particular, according to the last but one schedule issued in August 2000, the time fixed for finishing ISS assembly was April 2006.

    When speaking about continuation of work on the ISS, President Bush implied, one way of another, that Russian Progress and Soyuz spaceships would be used for delivering supplies to the station, as NASA plans to start testing a new piloted spaceship, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), only in 2008, with the first manned flight is to take place in 2014. The chief purpose of the CEV will be, according to Bush, to carry astronauts to other planets.

    Today, America cannot even visit the present ISS crew and the station's continued functioning will completely depend on Russia, western Europe and Japan for some time to come. At present, most of ISS servicing is performed by Russian transport spaceships. Russian Progress carrier rockets bring fuel, water and various goods to the station and elevate its orbit. This year, the European Space Agency plans to start launching ATV cargo ships to the ISS.

    Soyuz ships are launched from Baikonur every six months in case the ISS crew needs to leave the station in an emergency. According to an inter-agency agreement, Russia's Rosaviakosmos aerospace agency will continue these launches until April 2006. Formally, Russia can stop launching Soyuz craft after that, because according to the old plans, a US emergency spaceship, capable of returning a crew of seven to Earth, should appear in 2006. However, after work on the project stopped and the Orbital Space Plane (OSP) programme was launched, NASA only expects to have an emergency spaceship ready no earlier than 2008 or even 2010. In October 2002, the US partners asked Rosaviakosmos to save the situation by extending its commitments to launch two Soyuz craft a year at least to the end of 2008. In this situation, the Russian agency suggested increasing the level of investment from its the partners, which would be devastating for NASA's image.

    In the wake of the Columbia disaster, the question of continuing Soyuz launches temporarily lost its urgency, as the problem of retaining the ISS as a manned station had to be solved immediately. But building a Soyuz takes two years. Therefore, the question of prolonging Russia's launch commitments should be decided by April 2004.

    Before the Columbia crash, NASA chief Sean O'Keefe officially stated that his agency would buy no more Soyuz craft from Russia. His subordinates, however, put it in a milder way, saying that the US and its partners would try to find other ways of paying Russia for continuing to launch one Soyuz every six months, including after April 2006. Some "barter" versions have also been floated.

    The point is that NASA cannot buy new spaceships from Russia, as the Gilman Act, which is still in force, makes the appropriation of funds for these purposes dependent on Russia's relations with Iran (Russia allegedly helps Iran to develop a nuclear missile capability). To bypass this act, NASA has to prove that America is faced with a situation in which its interests are threatened. After that, the President may appeal to Congress, which will conduct hearings on the matter and take a decision.

    Getting US money via Europe is likewise impossible because of America's differences with Germany and France over Iraq (and these countries play the key role in the European Space Agency).

    Russia cannot spend all its "space money" on the ISS to the detriment of its other programmes, which are designed to restore a group of satellites for remote monitoring of the Earth, developing a series of communication satellites, increasing the number of satellites in the Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) to the required level, and carrying out important research using automatic space vehicles. These programmes still need to be completed.

    But now it seems that NASA has found a loophole in the Gilman Act, which does not prohibit purchasing space vehicles from private Russian companies that are not controlled by state-run Rosaviakosmos. So, NASA may sign a contract with the Russian Rocket and Space Corporation Energiya, which manufactures Soyuz spacecrafts and is not legally controlled by Rosaviakosmos. The carrier rocket for launching them can be purchased from the Russo-French company, Starsem. The ships may even not be launched from Rosaviakosmos sites at Baikonur, but from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.

    However, there is still the problem of how much the Soyuz craft will cost. Russia is asking for $65 million for every additional ship, but its partners would prefer to pay less. Evidently these matters will be on top before this April, after which the new Soyuz craft will, nevertheless, have to be ordered after all.

    If no agreement is reached, it will be no surprise if the very expensive International Space Station, the expediency of which is doubted by many people, will simply be cast away.

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