A meeting between the chiefs of the space agencies taking part in the ISS (International Space Station) programme, planned for April, may be held no earlier than June or July, an official NASA spokesman has announced.
The agency heads are expected to discuss the fate of the ISS and future funding for the project at this crucial conference.
When explaining the reasons for the postponement of the meeting, the NASA spokesman said that US experts needed more time to take a decision on the ISS in light of America's new interplanetary ambitions. However, a quite specific problem is probably behind the move: the resumption of shuttle flights.
NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe told reporters in mid-February that the shuttle fleet would remain grounded until next year. It had been assumed earlier that the first test flight after the Columbia tragedy would be at the end of 2004 and that by mid-2005 shuttles would resume servicing the ISS in full volume. Now it is unclear when shuttle flights will resume. Indeed, the shuttle's future is in doubt, as it is only set to operate until 2010.
Accordingly, the impatience expressed by Yuri Koptev, chief of the Russian Aerospace Agency (Rosaviakosmos), at a recent news conference in Moscow with regard to resumption of shuttle flights is quite understandable. Virtually every month the delays affect the work of the space station, which now has to be serviced by a reduced crew of two. This has already led to cutbacks in research.
However, the most important point is that the uncertainty over the US craft prevents the Russian space industry, which is responsible for the whole programme, from calculating the staff and funds required for assembling more unmanned transport and piloted spaceships.
Koptev's optimism about America's total devotion to the ISS and its resolve to stick to its obligations and intentions is not very convincing either. Russia's US partners have even announced a $900 million increase for the 2005 ISS budget in comparison to the 2004 figure. One can only be pleased for their sake, but no more than that.
In reality, however, the situation is very different. According to available information, repeated requests for the USA to provide funding for the Russian segment of the ISS made through the Russia Foreign Ministry and by the Rosaviakosmos management directly to NASA chiefs have produced no results. The ISS today is reminiscent of a poor lady, who had once been fairly rich, whom her good-for-nothing nephew does not want to visit despite her promises to prepare an apple pie for him.
With or without the Americans, the ISS programme will not be completed by 2010. On the contrary, everything will only begin in earnest, and flights to the ISS will have to be made according to an intensive schedule. In any case, it will be not US craft that will be used for the purpose, as a future US transport ship will not be developed and put into service before 2014. It is unlikely that reliable but, outdated Russian Soyuz and Progress craft, without even mentioning European spaceships, will be able to fill the gap in the intermediate period.
However, it looks like the new Russian multi-use transport system, which is currently being developed by the Energiya corporation, will become indispensable for the ISS not only in the period from 2010 to 2014 but also after it. According to Koptev, this is because the spaceship being developed in the US is probably not designed for work at the ISS.
The technical characteristics of the future Russian transport system are at least in no way inferior to the US shuttle. Indeed, the new system should allow three or more spacemen to work in orbit, while it will also be able to guarantee uninterrupted supplies for the station.