The last launch
If the weather permits, today will be the last launch of the US Space Shuttle Programme, and now NASA will depend on Russia to send astronauts and supplies into space. Joining us on the line to discuss the significance of this we have Anatoly Zak, a writer, artist and 3D-animator specializing in the history of space exploration.
Today is it! In Cape Canaveral, Florida, Atlantis, we’ll mark the final launch of the US space programme, and now we will depend on Russia to provide our space transport. How significant is this?
We could say this is a historical event. The Space Shuttle was in operation for 30 years. It was the main transportation system for the US and for all partners who participated in the International Space Station (ISS) Programme, because it was the biggest and the heaviest space craft to go to the ISS, so everybody, who participated in the station project relied on it for delivery of bulkiest, and biggest, and heaviest cargo. Now the Space Shuttle is retiring, it will be the last flight. So, it’s the end of the 30 years’ period for the US, and also the end for the ISS Programme. It affects all space powers that participate in the ISS Programme, which is Russia, US, Japan, European Space Agency. All of them will be affected.
NASA has been drastically affected by government budget cuts here, in the US, which hastened the end of the Space Shuttle Programme. However, Russia seems to be moving forward and continuing their history of their explorations and sending people into space. How much support does the Russian space programme receive from the government?
The support of the Russian space programme was increasing over the past 10 years. It was steadily going up and up. However, we do remember that in 1990s the Russian space programme was in a very bad financial shape. So, this is sort of return to the norm. This increasing support doesn’t really mean yet a huge boost to the Russian space programme. So far, it’s a return to the normalcy from a very difficult situation. We hope that if this trend continues the Russian space programme will not only continue what it’s doing right now but also go on to new levels of development, new missions, and so on. This is a good trend and, hopefully, it will continue.
Anatoly, we know that Russia recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin being the first human to make it in into space. Obviously, he was a Russian cosmonaut. Does the idea of the US and Russia collaborating in this cooperative relationship to be partners in space was pretty much unheard of 50 years ago. The space race was running neck-in-neck with the Cold War, was it not?
Absolutely. Man space programme was born pretty much out of competition between the two countries, and in the past 20 years we had this dramatic change from very fierce competition to cooperation. However, we have two schools of thoughts of whether it is good or bad, because when the competition was going on every country was trying its best in man space flights, and when it all changed to cooperation there arose questions, both from historians and engineers, whether it’s good to cooperate, because when the Space Shuttle isn’t flying, there is maybe not stimulus for Russia, according to some experts, to build new spacecraft and develop new technologies. So, there is a question of how cooperation really affects man space flight programmes. We will see in the next few years, of course.
Now that we do have this cooperation between the US and Russia as related to the space programme, is the American government going to pay Russia to bring American astronauts and supplies into space?
Yes, actually, we should say that this agreement about transporting American astronauts on board Soyuz is commercial. There is a direct payment to the Russian Space Agency fro this particular service. However, in general, the ISS is a cooperative project, so all participating sides build hardware at their own expense. So, this aspect of carrying astronauts will be paid. Russia is also flying its own space crews to the ISS, which, of course, do maintenance work and experiments at the station. However, this additional Soyuz spacecraft, which will fly NASA astronauts, will be compensated for by the American Space Agency.
Anatoly, you referred to the ferrying of US astronauts by Russia into space as a commercial flight, which is actually sounding very futuristic. But as the times we find ourselves in, correct me if I’m wrong, but has the Russian space programme before flown private citizens into space for a cost?
You are absolutely right. This is actually how this work was pioneered. It was pioneered in Russia. The Soyuz space craft became the first tourist vehicle to carry paid passengers into space. The difference is of course, that we have private citizens, who pay out of their own pockets and fly as tourists. That was done first time in 2001, and we have intergovernmental cooperation, where NASA or European space agencies pay to ferry their astronauts to the station on board Soyuz for experiments or for whatever purposes they want. However, you are absolutely right. Russia did pioneer this sort of activity, when it was very important for Russia to get hard cash to maintain the space programme, as the Russian government did not have enough funds to maintain it otherwise.
Something for our American audience: if you remember the group ‘N Sync, which is the group that Justin Timberlake came from, Lance Bass is one of the members, who paid in the tens of millions to ride to the space. How much does that cost?
There are different estimates. It’s not official. However, the price is believed to be beginning at 20 million dollars. But it was going up over the past decade. So, it’s believed to be between 25 and 30 million dollars per one person.
That is certainly a very good way to raise capital and revenue, if you are trying to maintain your space programme.