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Sunday, 4 May, 2003, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
Can Russia fulfil space role?

Less than 48 hours after the break-up of the Columbia space shuttle, an unmanned Russian rocket took off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, heading for the International Space Station (ISS).

If Nasa needed a reminder that it does not have the world's only space programme, then this was it.

American space tourist Dennis Tito
'Space tourists' are helping to pay the bills
But there was no sense of satisfaction at the Russian space agency, Rosaviakosmos.

It was a job that had to be done, regardless of what happened on Saturday.

There are three astronauts currently on the ISS, and the Russian Progress craft is keeping them supplied for the next three months.

More significantly for the future, the crew currently on the space station consists of two Americans and a Russian.

Budget squeeze

The ISS has shown that there is already a spirit of cooperation on space exploration.

Columbia's accident could give that cooperation fresh impetus, especially if US space launches were to be suspended for an extended period.

But even there were no cooperation, Russia would not be in a position to forge ahead of the US in space.

The International Space Station
Space station: likely to stay
Rosaviakosmos has been strapped for cash ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union closed the almost bottomless purse which funded the Soviet space programme.

Funds from the Russian government account for no more than 20% of the more than $1bn which Rosaviakosmos needs annually to keep going.

Russia has done a number of deals to launch foreign satellites, which bring in most of the cash for the space programme.

It has also toyed with space tourism. It is thought that the American millionaire, Dennis Tito, paid $20m for a trip to the ISS in 2001.

But there is no possibility that Russia could take on missions that are now suspended in the US.

Forging ahead

A spokesman for Rosaviakosmos, Sergei Gorbunov, said on Monday that the best Russia could do in 2003 was send a further two Progress cargo ships and two manned Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS.

Indeed, it is possible that a manned mission currently planned for April could be replaced by an unmanned mission, in order to economise on food and fuel.

In the uncertainty surrounding space programmes following the Columbia disaster, the US and Russia do seem determined to keep the ISS manned.

But that is bound to be with reduced resources.

Even if cooperation were to lead to the US paying Russia for more missions - a highly sensitive political question, even in the post-Cold War era - it is unlikely that Russia can produce any more rockets than those already in the production line.


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02 Feb 03 | Americas
02 Feb 03 | Europe
03 Feb 03 | Americas
01 Feb 03 | Americas
03 Feb 03 | Americas
03 Feb 03 | Science/Nature
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