HOUSTON — After the malfunctions of two of the three U.S. spacesuits aboard the international space station, a critical spacewalk to repair a broken stabilization system must now be made next month using Russian spacesuits. But the Russian willingness to step in and bail out NASA’s spacewalk comes at a price, outlined in documents obtained by MSNBC.com.
"We agree to perform an EVA [extravehicular activity] provided that we receive the appropriate compensation from NASA," Valeri Ryumin, the Russian head of the space station project, told NASA counterpart William Gerstenmaier in a memo dated Wednesday.
The “acceptable” payment would be 500 hours of crew work time — that is, time during which one country’s crew member performs tasks for the other country’s programs. This would involve no cash transfer, and in fact NASA is forbidden by law to pay Russia for any space-related services. But the value of the time request could amount to as much as $10 million, by one expert's informal measure.
NASA declined to provide a monetary conversion factor, and an agency spokeswoman indicated that such negotiations over crew time were common in space station operations.
“What we had always fully planned to do was to work out a reasonable compensation, and that’s normal,” NASA spokeswoman Kylie Moritz told MSNBC.com.
Ryumin’s memo, however, read as if it was the first mention of the need for compensation. It began with a demand for a quid pro quo before his side went along with NASA’s request.
“The Russian side is ready to provide assets to perform the EVA in order to restore operability to the gyrodynes,” he announced. “However, there are several problematical issues which must be resolved before a decision is made about performing this EVA.”
Justification for compensation
Ryumin gave two technical reasons for monetary compensation: First was a concern about whether using a Russian cargo boom as a means for getting to the repair site might in an emergency lead to a dangerous configuration. Second was the issue of the “consumables” — the air and other supplies expended in the spacewalk that would need to be replaced.
Ryumin said the Russians were worried that the boom could become stuck in an extended position — rendering it unavailable for other purposes later.
This certification work would involve analysis and equipment tests by a small Russian team over a period of several days, U.S. experts privately estimate.
Ryumin then pointed out that NASA had “obligations to support two EVAs for off-nominal situations” — obligations which it now could not fulfill and was asking Russia to perform instead.
“Given the limited capabilities of delivering cargo in 2004,” Ryumin explained, “if this EVA is performed, we are not planning to replenish limited-life items for off-nominal EVAs earlier than 2005.”
When the Russians are able to restock the items, “we think that NASA should compensate for the expenses incurred in fabricating the limited-life items that are used up during this EVA.” These include items such as carbon dioxide absorption canisters and single-use crew equipment and spacesuit components.
At this point in the one-page memo, Ryumin got to “the appropriate compensation,” the bottom-line price: “We think that an acceptable solution would be to write off a debt (credit) for crew time for specific use in the amount of at least 500 hours,” he proposed.
The currency of space
Space experts told MSNBC.com, on condition of anonymity, that they believed the issues raised by Ryumin were legitimate. They declined to comment on the asking price, however. NASA's Moritz confirmed that the process involved some give and take: “It’s a normal back-and-forth [negotiation] — determine what is to be done, and how we’ll take care of it.”
The partners in the space station program use crew time as a unit of currency when exchanging goods and services for the overall project. It refers to one side assigning its personnel to perform tasks — maintenance, research, commercial activities, and so forth — that formally falls into the responsibility or interests of the other partners.
Early in the space station program, when the United States stepped in to provide cargo transportation originally assigned to Russia, it accumulated a positive balance of more than 2,000 hours of crew time in which cosmonauts would carry out activities on behalf of U.S. projects. That balance has been reduced over the last several years but is still positive on the U.S. side.
Last month, a highly placed NASA official told MSNBC.com privately that he was hopeful the large “credit” in Russian crew work hours could be swapped to cover the cost of launching a Soyuz crew capsule to the station. Russia’s formal obligation to provide free Soyuz transportation expires in 2005, but so far no workable financing scheme has appeared beyond that date.
So far, Russia has been unwilling to keep providing Soyuz flights without getting paid, and the United States has been unwilling to bend its rules against providing cash payments to the Russian space program. If NASA’s “credit” is substantially reduced, that could accelerate the onset of the Soyuz funding crisis.
What's it worth?
Although dollar values for the crew hours are difficult to assign, Robert Pearlman, the editor of CollectSpace.com and a respected appraiser of the value of spaceflight memorabilia, told MSNBC.com about an analogous situation.
“Last year, when the Russians began charging $20,000 to $30,000 for taking mail to the ISS,” he explained, “part of their justification was that an estimated hour of astronaut labor cost $18,000 to $19,000.” This was based on a comment made by Russian Space Agency spokesman Sergei Gorbunov, quoted by Russia's Interfax news agency.
By that measure, the 500 hours could be worth $9.5 million or more. In comparison, the asking price for a Soyuz passenger flight to the space station is $20 million, and the European Space Agency bought five for a bulk rate of $15 million each. The entire cash value of the Russian federal space program is approximately $200 million per year, so Ryumin’s suggested price for supporting next month's spacewalk could be seen as the equivalent of 5 percent of Russia's annual space budget.
The 65-year-old Ryumin, a former cosmonaut, is no stranger to the give and take of spaceflight operations. In 1998, he was given a free space shuttle ride for an “inspection visit” to Russia's aging Mir space station. At the time, NASA officials said Ryumin was put on the crew to enhance the U.S.-Russian space partnership and “bank good will.”
Ryumin is now deputy manager of the Energia Space and Rocket Corp., which builds and operates all Russian vehicles for human spaceflight.