With the 1 February space-shuttle disaster likely to ground the U.S. shuttle program for some time, eyes are turning to Russia, the only country now capable of supplying the International Space Station. But the ailing Russian space program is barely able to scrape together enough funds to meet its current launch schedule. Industry representatives and analysts say immediate action is needed if Moscow is to have even a remote chance of picking up the slack.
Moscow, 3 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The 1 February disaster involving the "Columbia" space shuttle has grounded for an indefinite time the remaining three U.S. shuttles for investigation. This means it is now up to Russia to act as sole supplier to the three astronauts living aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
That is a tall order. Even before the weekend disaster, analysts had questioned the future of Russia's participation in the program. The country's space industry is so cash-strapped it can barely keep up with even its current launch schedules.
But as Russia joined in mourning the loss of space shuttle "Columbia" -- President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences to U.S. President George W. Bush in a telegram on the day of the disaster -- the country went ahead with the launch of an unmanned Progress cargo ship on 2 February. It will deliver food and fuel to the station's three crew members: Americans Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit and Russian commander Nikolai Budarin. With that shipment, the crew, which was originally due to return to Earth in March, will have enough supplies to last them through June of this year.
Moscow is currently scheduled to send up five rockets this year. But at least another three will be needed to keep the current three-man crew adequately supplied. That will require quick and drastic action and, above all, a flow of U.S. cash to Russia.
Sergei Gorbunov is a spokesman for Russia's space agency, Rosaviakosmos. He told RFE/RL that the United States must decide what it needs from Russia to be able to continue supplying the 16-country space station and must also make an official request to Moscow.
He said that unofficial telephone conversations between "technical specialists" began as early as 1 February. "This question has been discussed for hours, days -- I'm not quite sure. It's just that [the Americans] are figuring out exactly what happened -- it's a shocking event. But we're also considering all the options: who, what, and how. We understand that we are left as the only cargo carriers to the ISS, so naturally we're working out all the options," Gorbunov said.
Gorbunov said that Russian companies involved in supplying the ISS are calculating what they need to send to the station. But that does not include heavy cargo, such as space-station components, which Russian vessels do not have the capacity to carry.
Officials estimate that six unmanned, single-use Progress cargo ships and two manned Soyuz vessels must be sent up per year to supply a three-man crew, the same number of shipments Moscow used to supply its Mir space station.
Russian Progress ships can only carry up to 5 tons of cargo, meaning that barring the return of the U.S. space shuttles to service, another solution will have to be found in order for major construction work to continue on the ISS.
The "Columbia" disaster leaves an enormous gap in scheduled delivery missions to the ISS. Five scheduled U.S. shuttle missions this year will likely be scrapped, including a March launch by space shuttle "Atlantis" to relieve the ISS crew.
It is also unclear when the United States will be able to resume its shuttle program. The last U.S. shuttle disaster, the "Challenger" explosion in 1986, kept the shuttle fleet grounded for almost three years.
Gorbunov said that tensions are high at the Russian agency as officials determine how to compensate for the unexpected loss of the U.S. shuttle missions. He downplayed the notion that the Russian space industry is in a position to capitalize on its new opportunity as sole supplier to the ISS. "You don't build on the bones of others. This isn't a chance for development but a chance to prove that the Russian space program is alive, is working, and will continue to exist," Gorbunov said.
Russia has only two Soyuz vessels, one of which is currently moored to the ISS for use as an escape vessel. The second was scheduled to be launched in April, a plan that now comes into question because of logistical concerns.
Only one more Soyuz is currently under construction. Russian space officials last year said that at current spending levels, even its present rate of production would have to be scaled back.
The bleak outlook has led some experts in Russia to say the ISS may have to be mothballed.
Russia's space budget is estimated at between 8 billion and 10 billion rubles a year ($250 million-$312 million), as opposed to $14 billion in the United States.
Russia has in the past raised cash by sending "space tourists" to the station at $20 million a ride.
Vsevolod Latyshev, a spokesman for Russia's mission control, reiterated Gorbunov's statement that the Russian space industry is not seeking to capitalize on the shuttle tragedy. He said that the "Columbia" disaster is a blow to all those with a stake in the $95 billion ISS, including the European, Japanese, Canadian, and other space programs. "Notwithstanding the fact that we want the program to be financed better, we would like the program to remain a partnership with the Americans and all the other partners working on the ISS," Latyshev said.
Latyshev said the mood at mission control is somber. NASA representatives and the U.S. ambassador today visited for a ceremony commemorating the lost shuttle crew.
Igor Lisov is a space analyst with "Novosti kosmonavtiki." He agrees that the main questioning is financing. "In any case, it must be decided quickly. Why did talk begin of [an additional] three Progress vessels? Because there was so little money in previous years, and there are no backup supplies. It takes a minimum of 1 1/2 years to build a Soyuz or Progress-type ship. It's like pregnancy: You can't speed it up. Well, under certain limits, with a lot of effort, it may be possible to build one in a year," Lisov said.
Lisov said that if money enough is provided, it may be possible to build six Progress ships for next year. In the meantime, it may be necessary to reduce the number of astronauts in the ISS to two.
Another, even more drastic, option is evacuating the ISS altogether, something that Gorbunov said would come with the risk of losing control of the station.