international sapce station
NASA  /  AFP file
NASA's current strategy calls for eventually reducing U.S. activities aboard the international space station.
By NBC News space analyst
Special to NBC News
updated 6/10/2005 3:38:50 PM ET 2005-06-10T19:38:50

Russia is prepared to take over if the United States decides to scale back its support of the international space station, a Russian space official said this week.

Buoyed by improved economic conditions and bold new management and armed with mature designs for a new generation of space vehicles while NASA is mired in endless paper studies, the Russians are pushing a broad development program for the hardware that could replace the services now provided by the U.S. space shuttle.

“If the United States happens to leave the program, we'll be prepared,"  Alexander Medvedchikov, deputy head of the Russian Space Agency, said Tuesday in a briefing broadcast online from Moscow. "We are looking ahead, too,” he added.

The mainstays of the new Russian-provided logistics support for the space station would be a new reusable human spacecraft called "Kliper" and a new automated cargo transfer vehicle called "Parom." Supplementing the transportation infrastructure for space-to-Earth delivery of experimental results (and perhaps crewmembers) would be a revolutionary inflatable heat-shield vehicle which is nearing another test flight.

Russia has also announced plans to launch its own scientific module to dock to the station in 2007 and a supplemental “energy module” several years after that.

Space station timelineAlthough revised NASA strategies for space involve phasing out the space shuttle in 2010 and reducing U.S. activities aboard the space station, no explicit intentions have been communicated to its partners. Neither the White House nor NASA has yet to "officially" refuse to indefinitely participate in the space station program, Medvedchikov said, but that announcement was expected.

At that point, the space station would be left without the heavy-lift and large-volume transport historically provided by the U.S. space shuttles. Expansion of the station, as well as maintenance and repair of significant hardware problems, might no longer be possible.

Evolution of new space vehicles
Space engineers at the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation, which builds and operates all Russian human space vehicles, have been refining their designs for their follow-on to the Soyuz crew transport vehicle that has, in various models, been the mainstay of Russian cosmonautics for almost 40 years. They have also engaged in a major sales campaign to obtain funding both in Moscow and abroad.

The "Kliper" (as in a "clipper ship") will use a bath-tub shaped lifting-body command module to carry six cosmonauts on a much gentler ride than the Soyuz. It will also have a disposable docking module at its aft end for carrying cargo and linking up with the space station.

Last May, the European Space Agency’s director of human spaceflight, Daniel Sacotte, was quoted in the Russian press as promising partial financing for Kliper from France, Germany, and Italy. Alan Thirkettle, ESA’s head of development for human space flight, told reporters that such cooperation would make Europe relatively independent of American restrictions on flights of European astronauts.

A space tugboat
With the prospects of the Kliper growing brighter, and the expansion of the space station to accommodate a permanent six-person crew, Russian space engineers also realized that their classic space logistics system would be unable to deliver enough cargo.

For more than two years now, with the U.S. shuttle fleet grounded, the space station has been kept supplied by Russian robot space freighters of the "Progress" series. Each one can carry about two and a half tons of cargo, and three or four are launched every year. They follow the same launch-to-docking profile as the manned "Soyuz" vehicles and share most of their control systems.

Last month, Russian space official Nikolay Bryukhanov said that the Progress system would be replaced by a new space transportation system based on an entirely different concept. It will be called "Parom" (Russian for "ferry") and will replace the throwaway Progress model with a reusable space tugboat.

The Parom will be placed in orbit near the space station and then patiently wait for cargo canisters to be launched from Earth. These canisters will not need the complex and expensive control systems of a Progress vehicle; instead, a standard docking interface will allow the Parom to latch onto them as they draw near. The Parom will then use its guidance and propulsion systems to deliver the cargo to the space station.

“Any Russian or foreign launch vehicle can orbit such containers,” Bryukhanov said. “This can be an airtight instrument module or a fuel tanker,” he suggested, or even “an unpressurized platform featuring large scientific equipment and auxiliary systems [such as] solar batteries that cannot be stored inside an airtight module.”

In layout, the Parom will be built around a pressurized transfer passage with docking ports at each end: one to dock to the cargo module, the other to dock to the space station. It will have its own engines, along with propellant transfer lines to feed from the cargo canister into its own tanks or into the space station’s tanks. It will also have engines scaled to handle cargo modules weighing up to 60,000 pounds, twice the mass of the largest station sections carried into orbit aboard space shuttles.

The same space tugboat technique will not only allow expansion and resupply of space stations, he added, but also the assembly of multi-modular vehicles for manned and unmanned flights into deep space. The Parom could also toss payloads into higher Earth orbits, or push waste containers down into the atmosphere for incineration, and then reverse its own course and stay in orbit for its next mission. As needed, it could be serviced by spacewalking cosmonauts based at the space station.

Bryukhanov said he expected that the Parom, which would be rely on a heritage of proven Progress hardware, would be a commercial money-maker within a few years of deployment.

A new shuttle?
Medvedchikov even suggested that at some future point, if required, the Russians could restart their "Buran" shuttle program. With an external appearance amazingly similar to the U.S. shuttle, Buran made one successful orbital flight without a crew in late 1988. The program then collapsed during the severe budget crunch that accompanied the transition from the Soviet Union to Russia.

"If tasks emerge which this system would be capable of fulfilling, then I think it would be possible to revive this project," he said. "In my view, this system is significantly better than the [U.S.] shuttle, because the shuttle can only work in conjunction with a specific booster.”

Medvedchikov claimed that “the thinking behind the Energiya-Buran project is far more practical. The Energiya booster rocket and the Buran space shuttle are independent of each other," and the components could fly on separate missions.

The project was unjustified in the 1980s, he said. "We developed this system somewhat prematurely. It was ahead of its time, since at that time there were simply no large-scale objectives to be tackled with this kind of system."

“The U.S. is not going to make endless use of its shuttles,” Medvedchikov said. “They are a costly affair and too old at that.”

As for NASA's planned next-generation crew vehicle, Medvedchikov said its role in supporting the international space station was unclear. “I don't know if it is going to be fit for missions to the ISS or something else but, hopefully, everything will be thought and weighted out."

Landing on air
An often-neglected advantage of a large shuttle vehicle, whether the NASA design or the Buran, is that the voluminous payload bay means it can not just carry large objects into space, but return them to Earth as well. For returning re-usable cargo canisters such as the Italian-built Raffaello module, or for large items of unique hardware that are cheaper to refurbish than to rebuild from scratch, this capability can be critical. In fact, future space station operations plans were based on it.

But the station's European partners had long chaffed at NASA’s constraints and high costs for bringing any cargo back from space. So about eight years ago they quietly contracted with a Russian space corporation to develop and test a cargo-return system based on a revolutionary "inflatable heat shield" concept. Pressurized by nitrogen gas, a shuttlecock-shaped cone lined with heat-resistant fabric is deployed around the payload as it hits the upper atmosphere.

Their first design involved cargo of only a few hundred pounds, but they realized from the beginning that the technology could be vastly upsized. One direction could build emergency vehicles for crew bail-out from a crippled station, while other advances would make a system that could safely bring back modules of 10,000 to 20,000 pounds. This would completely replace the down-cargo services of a shuttle-class vehicle, at a fraction of the price but at the cost of a somewhat rougher landing.

Sometime in July, this European-funded space vehicle is slated for a new space test. The payload is already on a rocket being loaded on a Russian missile submarine, next to the rocket carrying the much-better-known Cosmos-1 solar sail . A few weeks after the solar sail is launched, the second rocket will hurl the Demonstrator-2B into space for a literal trial by fire.

A previous flight test in 1999 showed promise when the system was properly deployed, but two later missions on cut-rated decommissioned military missiles were frustrated by booster failures. That’s what happened to Demonstrator-1 and Demonstrator-2A, hence the "2B" designation.

But even if this test is less than a success, the development effort will continue. Together with the new Kliper and Parom vehicles, and perhaps later even a resurrected Buran, the inflatable design will provide Russia and its European partners with an impressively enhanced space infrastructure at precisely the time the space station will be looking for a new master.

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