Amid a difficult political relationship, Russia and the U.S. now depend on each other more than ever in manned rocket launches
To return to the era of Soviet-U.S. rivalry, it's not really necessary to travel back in time. A visit to this town in southwestern Kazakhstan will do.
Baikonur, which since the 1950s has hosted the launch site for Soviet space missions and their Russian successors, is still a closed Russian enclave in this Central Asian country. Visitors enter only with permission, and soldiers guard a checkpoint at the entrance.
The town's landscape has changed little since the time of the USSR. A silence hangs over the downtown of crumbling Soviet-era buildings. There are few street advertisements and billboards, no Internet cafes, no new high-rise buildings. This town of 70,000 hardly seems like the busiest space launch center in the world, but it is.
The space infrastructure and vehicles haven't changed much, either. Soyuz rockets, first used in the 1960s, are still launched on the pad where Yuri Gagarin, the first man to go into space, started his journey almost five decades ago. Despite their age, Soyuz spacecraft and their carrier rockets have proved to be the most reliable vehicles for manned missions today.
But they cannot fly to the moon. In April Russia announced that Energiya (RKKE.RTS), maker of the Soyuz spaceships, will build a new spacecraft for manned flights that could also be used for missions to the moon and Mars. Construction of the craft and its carrier rocket would come with a $25 million price tag, according to Roskosmos, the Russian space agency.
This step may mark the start of another space race. Officially Russia has not announced that it plans to send a manned mission to other planets, but its attempts to design a new spacecraft and a carrier rocket for manned launches seem to emulate recent developments in the United States.
In 2004, NASA unveiled Constellation, a $92 billion program that would include development of a space ship called Orion and its carrier rocket, Ares, by 2015. These crafts would be used to reach the moon, where NASA plans to build a lunar base, by 2020. From there, NASA hopes to send manned missions to Mars – and to reach the planet before anyone else gets there.
Russia lags behind the U.S. program by several years. The first flight of the new Russian manned spacecraft is expected in 2018, three years after Orion. But the Kremlin is trying hard to catch up. "It's time to move from using and maintaining old Soviet 'capital' to implementing new, ambitious space projects," said Vladimir Putin, then president, last year when he announced the construction of a new launch center, Vostochnyi in the far east, that is supposed to take over most of Baikonur's manned flights by 2020.
RIVALS, PARTNERS IN SPACE
Because of such growing competition, some in the United States feel uneasy with the country's increasing dependence on Russia to transport American astronauts to the International Space Station. Starting next year, with the retirement of the space shuttle program, Soyuz will be the only vehicle for U.S. astronauts to get to the station. NASA will have a five-year gap in manned flights until Orion is functional.
In December NASA signed a $141 million contract with Roskosmos to take three U.S. astronauts to the space station in 2011. But NASA will need to send more than a dozen people in order to meet its commitments to the space station program. And they will all have to hitch a ride on a Soyuz.
Former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin referred to such reliance as his "greatest regret and greatest concern."
The August war in Georgia, signaling an increasingly aggressive Russian foreign policy, did not allay such fears. "If our relationship with Russia is strained, who knows if Russia will give us rides in the future?" U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said to CNN after Russian troops invaded Georgia. "Or if they give us rides, will they charge such an exorbitant price that it becomes blackmail?"
Although the leaders of the two countries have pushed the "reset" button in their relations, political confrontation on a number of issues may continue. "The U.S. needs Russia's help in Iran's nuclear policy. Disagreements there have affected space cooperation in the past and could again in the future," said Howard McCurdy, an expert on space policy at American University in Washington, D.C.
But NASA and American astronauts remain confident that political issues will not stop cooperation in space. "I would remind you that the beginning of cooperation within the Mir-space shuttle program started at the end of the Cold War," said U.S. astronaut Michael Barratt before blasting off to the space station on board a Soyuz in March. "Back then no one would even have imagined that Russia and the U.S. would have such a large station orbiting right now. So I think the current economic and political pressures – these are just hiccups. [They] are very small, trivial compared to what we had to overcome to get to where we are now."
Some argue that Russia depends on the United States as much as the United States does on Russia. Without the U.S. and European participation in the space station, Russia's manned spacecrafts could not have survived, Anatoliy Zak, the editor of RussianSpaceWeb.com, said in a phone interview. "It would be suicide for Russia if it for some reason refused to take American astronauts on board Soyuz to deliver them to the ISS." Zak said such a move would mean the end of Russian Soyuz spacecraft, as funding dried up and it lost its reason for existing – flights to orbital stations. As a result, Zak said, Russia's status as a space-faring nation would be severely damaged, affecting the entire future of Russian space exploration.
Russia, with its outdated space technology, could hardly withstand such a blow. "We are behind some nations in various technological spheres by seven to 30 years," Gennady Padalka, space station commander for the current mission, told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper. But the problem goes beyond technology, he said. "Many young instructors have lost interest in training cosmonauts. The program is carried on solely by old men, by pensioners."
When the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation conducted a poll last year to mark Cosmonauts Day, 12 April, only 18 percent of respondents said they had ever wanted to be or dreamed of being a cosmonaut.
Padalka would find little comfort in the attitude of 10-year-old Alexander, who was in-line skating near Baikonur's statue of Gagarin one day recently. Asked if he wanted to follow in the great man's footsteps, he simply said no. Perhaps become a rocket engineer, then? Still no. "I would like to be a businessman," he said.