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From rivals to partners in orbit

How did the space competition between the Russians and Americans turn to cooperation? MSNBC’s Alan Boyle reports.
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The space race was a cornerstone of the Cold War between Soviets and Americans. But long after America won the ideological race to put humans on the moon, the game has turned into a cooperative venture — with each side providing something the other side lacked.

EVEN BEFORE the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the Soviet space effort was running out of steam. Moscow spent billions of dollars developing its answer to the U.S. space shuttle, a near-carbon copy known as the Buran, Russian for “Snowstorm,” mounted on the powerful Energia rocket.

Unlike the shuttle, the Buran was capable of being flown by remote control as well as by a human crew. But the project was mothballed after just one unmanned test flight in 1988.

InsertArt(937331)If the Americans excelled in getting heavy payloads into orbit, the Russians excelled in keeping humans in orbit for months at a time. The Mir space station’s trouble-plagued latter years may have cast a pall over the West’s perception of Moscow’s space prowess — but virtually every space expert admits that, as recently as the mid-1990s, the Russians were unmatched in the field of long-duration human space flight.

“In manned space, the Russians have the finest operational program,” said MirCorp President Jeff Manber, whose privately funded venture kept Mir going for an extra year. “The whole point of ISS (the International Space Station) is for everybody to learn how to do that so that we can go beyond, finally, Earth’s orbit and go back to the moon and on to Mars.”

Today, Russians and Americans almost literally rub elbows at Mission Control, north of Moscow, where NASA operates a computer-packed miniature control room that’s linked to controllers in Houston.

“We’re right here at ground zero, putting the station together,” said Tim Baum, manager of NASA’s Houston Support Group at Russia’s Mission Control. The group’s two dozen members serve as liaisons between Russian and American controllers.

Now the challenges are changing along with the new station: The United States and more than a dozen other international partners are busily building on Russia’s expertise, and NASA is no longer transferring huge sums of money to Moscow. Some Russians worry that they’ll be relegated to a back seat in space exploration, a field where they once led the world.

But astronaut Bill McArthur, NASA’s director of operations for Russia, says the one-time space rival will remain a valued partner.

“What I think we’re going to see is that the work for everyone will grow correspondingly, that the Russians will continue to be involved and play just as critical a role because the systems in their segment have such an important role in ISS,” he said. “It’ll be more that (the U.S. role) grows than that the Russian involvement is diminished.”