Russia’s cash-strapped space agency said on Tuesday it would stop giving U.S. astronauts free rides into orbit in the future.
Russia has single-handedly serviced the international space station, a multibillion-dollar orbiting laboratory, for almost two years since the United States grounded its Shuttles after the fatal Columbia accident.
It has made no secret of the financial pinch it has felt from having to launch joint U.S.-Russian manned missions and cargo ships to the station, saying its space budget is a mere fraction of NASA’s resources.
Space agency chief Anatoly Perminov will go to the United States early next year with a proposal, a spokesman for the Russian Space Agency said.
“From 2006, we will put U.S. astronauts into orbit only on a commercial basis,” Itar-Tass news agency quoted Perminov as saying.
NASA officials were not available for comment. Roskosmos said it had not received any response to the proposal yet.
Man-hours as currency
The United States has often funded Russian cosmonauts’ trips to the station on its shuttles, and since the Columbia tragedy Russia has done the same for U.S. astronauts.
Under the new proposal, the United States would write off debts of man-hours that Russia owes for work carried out on the station in exchange for Russia launching its astronauts.
When the station was built, participants from 16 nations agreed money and expertise they would put into the project. Russia still owes some of its agreed input, some of which would be written off if the United States agrees to the plan.
It was the latest in a string of money-saving plans devised by Russia to alleviate its financial woes.
It has launched two paying space passengers, who enjoyed around 10 days in space for their multimillion-dollar tickets, and has plans to send up more amateurs. Perminov, quoted by Itar-Tass, said two such passengers could be launched in 2006.
Station operating below capacity
A plan to extend astronauts’ stays on the space station to up to a year from the current six months — enabling Russia to send up more fee-paying space tourists — was turned down earlier this year by NASA, which said the move would restrict the work of the station, already operating below capacity.
U.S. officials have said shuttle flights could resume as early as May, an event Russia is keenly awaiting.
“At the beginning of next year I will go to America to personally make sure that the preparation for the resumption of shuttle flights is going according to plan,” Perminov said, quoted by Itar-Tass.
Russia has launched two manned and five unmanned spaceships to the station this year from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which it rents from its ex-Soviet neighbor.