Russia releases $38 million to build craft to space station

Funds originally budgeted for second half of year

Soyuz to shuttle crew

April 04, 2003|By David Holley | David Holley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MOSCOW - Fearing that the international space station might have to be left in orbit without a crew, the Russian government yesterday accelerated funding to build space vehicles.

Yuri Koptev, director of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, told reporters that the Russian Cabinet has approved the early release of $38 million that was budgeted for the second half of the year. The government also tentatively promised to increase the agency's budget to $240 million next year from $130 million this year, he said.

With the loss of the space shuttle Columbia having grounded the U.S. shuttle fleet, Russia's Progress cargo craft and three-person Soyuz spaceships are the only vehicles available to carry supplies or ferry crews. The space station is a joint project of the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency.

U.S. astronaut Edward Lu and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko are scheduled to ride a Soyuz to the station April 26 for a six-month mission. The station's current three-member crew, Americans Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit and Russian Nikolai Budarin, are to return to Earth next month in another Soyuz capsule docked there as an emergency escape craft.

Russian space officials have said they do not have enough of the single-use Progress and Soyuz vehicles to meet the station's needs if the U.S. shuttles remain grounded for an extended period. The Russian side has been pressing hard for U.S. funding to help build more of the transport craft.

Such foreign assistance still will be needed, Koptev said. But the commitment to speed up domestic funding reflected Moscow's strong wish to avoid abandoning the station.

Koptev stressed that it would be unwise to leave the space station even temporarily without a crew. "We have had a number of cases already when computers that run all systems on board the station would freeze up, and it was not always possible to fix everything from the Earth," he said. "The station has not become `broken-in' quite yet."

Technicians could possibly lose control of an empty station, which could then drift out of its orbit and eventually plunge to Earth, he warned.

At the start of the Cabinet meeting yesterday, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said the future of the space station rested with Russia. "The main burden now falls on us. We need to ensure additional launches and flights to the station. And this requires additional funds," he said. "Space exploration has always been a priority ... both during Soviet times and now."

The Cabinet's decision to speed construction of space vehicles means that other aspects of the Russian space program will need to be sacrificed, Koptev said. Russia is no longer building new modules to expand the station and has stopped developing scientific equipment for use there, he said.

Yet Russia has a "moral obligation" to carry on such activities "to remain a dignified partner in this project," he said.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials have said that the U.S. agency cannot pay for construction of any extra Russian space vehicles because of the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000. That law restricts payments to Russia made in connection with the space station unless the United States confirms that Russia has not transferred banned missile technology or technology for nuclear, biological or chemical weapons to Iran in the previous 12 months. An exception is allowed if the crew's safety is in jeopardy.

Also yesterday, Koptev announced that Russia and China will soon intensify their cooperation in space. "We may come to formalizing understandings on manned space flights by May," he said.

China, which is not a partner in the international space station, has announced plans to launch its first manned mission this year.

David Holley is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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