President Bush’s plan to send humans to the moon, Mars and beyond excited Russian space officials and designers, who voiced hopes Thursday for winning a lucrative share in the U.S. program and boosting the sagging status of their own.
NASA has already sent the Russian Aviation and Space Agency its proposals concerning cooperation in moon and Mars missions, deputy chief Nikolai Moiseyev told the Itar-Tass news agency. He did not give details of the U.S. proposals but said Russia has plentiful know-how to share.
The Interfax news agency reported that Russian space officials would discuss the future of the space station with their U.S. counterparts in Washington Feb. 12.
Bush’s plan could be a chance for the beleaguered Russian space program to get much-needed cash and to revive its prestige. The Soviet Union sent the first satellite and first human into space, but the Russian program fell on hard times after the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The program gained new prominence when, after the suspension of the space shuttle program following the Columbia disaster, Russian Soyuz craft became the only way to ferry astronauts to and from the international space station. Severe funding problems persist, however.
Despite the money shortage, its scientists have done a lot of new research on interplanetary missions, said space agency spokesman Vyacheslav Mikhailichenko.
“Even though our space engineers lacked money to build new hardware, they have done a lot of prospective design work,” Mikhailichenko told The Associated Press. “We have preserved and developed our scientific potential.”
Like other Russian space officials, Mikhailichenko held out hope that the United States will tap Russian know-how while building future spacecraft. “It would be unfeasible to do such work alone,” he said.
The officials said they were not bothered by Bush's intention to shift the emphasis from the space station to moon and interplanetary missions and retire its shuttle fleet by around 2010.
Mikhail Sinelshchikov, the head of Russia’s human spaceflight program, told the Interfax news agency that the United States had pledged to fulfill all its obligations under the 16-nation project. “The program and plans are still valid, the commitments are the same for the international partners,” Sinelshchikov said.
View from the European Union
The European Union also hoped Bush’s space initiative would be open to international participation.
“One thing is clear, Europe would be a solid, credible and respected partner,” said Philippe Busquin, the EU’s research commissioner. “The exploration of space is a domain that would need the strong international scientific cooperation.”
The European Space Agency's chief welcomed Bush's speech as well.
“The news is not the moon and Mars, the news is that President Bush has set a calendar and has described what will happen after the station,” Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain said. “It’s good news because it shows interest in space is growing throughout the world.”
The European Space Agency is due to meet officials from NASA in March to discuss how to work together in the next phase of space exploration.
Russia's designs on space
Mikhailichenko said Russia’s giant Energia booster rocket, with a payload of about 110 tons, could be useful for lunar and interplanetary missions. The Energia program has been dormant in recent years due to the money crunch and the lack of suitable mission.
Mikhailichenko said Energiya facilities have been preserved at Baikonur, the Central Asian launch pad used by Russia for manned space flights.
Meanwhile, Russian space designers said they could quickly develop spacecraft for both lunar and Martian missions if they have money.
Roald Kremnev, a deputy head of NPO Lavochkin company that built the Soviet Lunokhod rover that traipsed across the moon in 1970, said it could build its successor in mere two or three years for just $21 million, Itar-Tass reported.
Kremnev said that his company could make spacecraft capable of flying unmanned missions to the moon, including robots capable of building temporary housing there.
Landing on Mars in 2014?
Another space designer, Leonid Gorshkov of the RKK Energiya company that builds Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, says it has designed a spacecraft that can carry a crew to Mars as early as 2014 for $15 billion.
Gorshkov told Itar-Tass that the 77-ton spacecraft modeled on the Russian Zvezda module for the space station could be assembled in orbit from components delivered by Proton booster rockets.
Russian designers are already thinking about the composition of the crew. Gorshkov said that it would likely consist of four to six men, but he was hesitant about including women.
“On the one hand, she may become an element of psychological imbalance on the male crew. On the other hand, women respond to emergencies better,” Gorshkov told Itar-Tass.
The China card
Increased involvement with NASA could divert Russia from working with China’s advancing manned space program. Russia has sold space technology to China and trained two Chinese air force pilots at the Star City cosmonaut training center outside Moscow.
China launched its first human into space in October, joining the United States and Russia in an elite club of spacefaring nations.
Sun Laiyan, deputy director of the China National Space Administration, said in December that China planned to launch a lunar probe program this year, which includes a lunar satellite by 2007. “That will be followed by the landing of an unmanned vehicle on the moon by 2010 and collecting samples of lunar soil by 2020,” Xinhua said.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan brushed off suggestions that China’s projects might spark a space race.
“China, in the field of spaceflight and exploration of space, hopes to cooperate with other countries on the basis of equality and friendship,” Kong told a Beijing news conference. “Our attitude on this, in fact, is positive and open. We also hope to make our own contributions toward mankind’s better understanding of space.”
China plans a second human spaceflight within the next two years, this time carrying more than one astronaut.