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What's the outlook for the ISS?

Published by Klaus Schmidt on Tue Aug 14, 2007 9:44 pm
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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov) – In all probability, the question in the headline should be rephrased and run like this: who will man the International Space Station (ISS) next?

The very future of this unique international orbital complex depends on the answer. The prospects for keeping the present crew are small, in fact, none existent. The main ISS users – the Russians and the Americans – are not interested in exploiting the common orbital home, each for their own reasons, and this is no cause for rejoicing either.

The last statement may appear outrageous at first glance, especially in reference to Russia. But things are not so simple, as we will see. For now, though, let us begin with America.

Sunday August 12 did not turn out a particularly lucky day for the Space Shuttle program revived with such difficulty. Inspection revealed that the damage suffered by the Endeavor orbital unit during launch was more serious than it had earlier appeared. It is to be hoped that the mission will end successfully. But it is hardly likely to generate extra enthusiasm for the remaining 11 missions on the U.S. ISS program.

To be sure, our partners are quite serious when they say that they intend to complete the deployment of the complex before October 2010, the provisional deadline set for winding up the shuttle program. But circumstances beyond human control may arise, such as frequent and dangerous damage to thermal tiles. This is a more or less regular occurrence now as these freighters fly to orbit.

It is highly likely therefore that for purely technical reasons the Americans will be unable to last the next two years or so and may soon ground their shuttles. Frankly speaking, it is hard to find evidence supporting the view that such a development would have an adverse effect on the American space effort, and especially its manned program.

As NASA administrator Michael Griffin has repeatedly said, the strategic aim of U.S. flights is to explore space beyond near-Earth boundaries. That is to say, the ISS project is no longer central to the American space program. Tactically, it was interesting to read a June report that the Russian Space Agency (Roskosmos) and NASA have agreed a plan to run the station in the next three to four years. But the Americans are not going to change their strategy, and the recurrent glitches with shuttles will, on the one hand, abort the program ahead of time, releasing the annual $4 billion for the development of the new Orion spacecraft, and, on the other, oblige NASA to revise its manned program. It is far from clear that in such an event NASA will keep its interest in ISS flights.

Let us now try and look for a more or less acceptable reason for the Americans to hold up their end of the bargain. Joint research with Russia? It is puny. Scientific experiments of its own? As it is, they are insignificant, while preparations for lunar and Martian voyages that are to begin tomorrow seem to strike a more resonant note with our partners. Their presence on the ISS is, in this case, not binding. Partner obligations? Sorry, events and circumstances beyond human control.

For Russia, the ISS is all that is left of its once stupendous manned program. Its loss would shake the industry to its foundations. But the question arises: if Russia is to stay on, which is beyond discussion, then what is to be done and, most importantly, how?

We are not going to have any Klipers or Orions in the next two years. As a result, 2010 on the ISS will be welcomed in with Soyuz and Progress craft, which will be ferrying crews and cargoes to and fro. How, in this case, one can speak of increasing crew numbers, is beyond me. It is no secret that one of three cosmonauts or astronauts has nowadays to spend most of his time at the station fixing recurring bugs. What real research can there be? Besides, there are no worthwhile Russian scientific programs for the ISS. On paper they may exist, but that is far from enough.

There is one more circumstance contributing to the view of Russia’s position on the ISS as a stalemate. At the end of 2005, the Americans agreed to pay fares for astronauts traveling aboard Soyuz craft. This is good. Later, as its space shuttle program winds down, NASA may ponder the purchase of Soyuz craft for its own needs, should it wish to give its boys a ride to the orbit. This is good as well. Workshops outside Moscow will assemble keenly familiar parts into ships that have been blasting off into space for dozens of years. Everyone is at their place doing their jobs.

And how? By old and routine ways, as they have done for years. The Americans, meanwhile, will quietly complete and test their Orion and other cutting-edge technology. China and India will forge ahead with their manned programs, taking advantage of the latest world developments.

So who will be manning the ISS tomorrow?

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Copyright 2007 RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

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