Showing signs of increasing frustration with NASA’s financial foot-dragging, Russia’s cosmonaut training center this week staged a brief but highly visible "sit-down strike" and announced that it was suspending training for American astronauts there.
Although the order was quickly rescinded by higher-ups, the point was made: Either in cash or through some barter arrangement, the U.S. side needs to reach an agreement with Moscow on how the United States will pay Russia for impending space bills.
NASA officials were tight-lipped about the dispute.
"The subject of Russians training U.S. astronauts for Expedition 13 is part of our discussions with the Russians on the balance of contributions, and we do not comment on ongoing negotiations,” agency spokeswoman Debra Rahn wrote in an e-mail to MSNBC.com.
But the subject is being discussed much more widely than Rahn’s message indicates, and the drop-dead date has been known for years in advance. Nevertheless, the advance notice does not seem to have sparked to any progress in resolving the crisis — and with the clock ticking down, there may be no option left except to capitulate to the Russian demands.
“It is well known that Russia doesn't have any obligations to transport U.S. crew members to and from ISS after the return of Main Expedition 12 in April 2006,” explained Igor Lissov, senior editor of Moscow's Novosti Kosmonavtiki, or Cosmonautics News.
Paraphrasing ideas from an interview with Russian Space Agency official Alexei Krasnov late last year, Lisov added: “Time is critical to make some bilateral decision now, because the April 2006 Soyuz is already in production and crews must be selected and start training very soon.”
No pay means no play, the Russian space journalist explained: “Without such a decision, I can hardly see an American onboard the April 2006 Soyuz.” Although that is a full year in the future, Russian officials say the training of American astronauts for the mission must begin in the next six to eight weeks.
A game of space chicken
This week, the Russians showed NASA who holds the orbital bargaining chips.
“Training of U.S. astronauts for flights on the Russian Soyuz spaceships has been suspended for the time being,” a Star City spokesman told the Itar-Tass news agency Tuesday. “At the same time, the training of astronauts in the mockups of Russian modules of the ISS continues.”
The Russian Space Agency's press secretary, Vyacheslav Davidenko, spoke to a reporter for the Interfax news agency later in the day. Davidenko explained that "Russia's obligations toward NASA for the training of crews and their delivery aboard Soyuz spacecraft expire in 2006," and that new funding was required.
“We are awaiting a letter from NASA on this subject," Davidenko said.
NASA officials were reportedly "shook up" over the initial announcements, and on Tuesday evening, the Russians changed their tune — partly. Anatoly Perminov, head of the Russian Space Agency, denied that training had been affected. “We are not talking about stopping the training of NASA astronauts in Star City,” he told a reporter.
But then he added a twist, getting to the crux of the hardball negotiations that Moscow has been so good at for decades. “The Russian Space Agency is proposing,” he said, “that the U.S. space agency finance the installation of a second Soyuz rescue craft into the ISS."
Between a rocket and a hard place
Far more expensive than just the training at Star City, the actual price of an entire Soyuz mission — perhaps as high as $60 million — has been funded so far entirely by the Russian side. But as of next year, bringing astronauts to the space station and providing an escape capsule for all of them contractually becomes NASA's responsibility.
Installment payments must begin soon so that subcontractors can be paid in advance for components needed for the assembly of the spacecraft and its booster rocket.
Finding the money at all amid tight budget times is one thing, but NASA is also struggling with a far thornier policy problem: U.S. law forbids NASA from paying the Russians any real money, except under specific conditions that have not been met.
Without some sort of payment, the Russians would deny NASA access to future Soyuz missions, including the use of docked Soyuz capsules in emergencies, and the international space station could no longer host long-term crews. This puts NASA over a space barrel.
When the original partnership agreements were signed for the international space station in the late 1990s, various goods and services were allocated to the different partners. The Russians agreed to provide a steady stream of unmanned resupply ships — the Progress space freighters — and also an initial sequence of twice-yearly Soyuz missions to keep the station equipped with a bail-out vehicle for its initial three-person crew.
NASA, in turn, promised to develop and deploy a seven-person bail-out capsule to provide safe emergency evacuation for an expanded crew. The capsule was to be operational by 2005, after which the Russian obligation to provide Soyuz vehicles would lapse. They would still fly such missions, but all seats would be allocated on a strictly cash-and-carry basis.
The last such "free" Soyuz will be launched next September. When it lands in April 2006, all seats on subsequent Soyuzes — whether merely up-down visits or for use in emergency descents — must be paid for in advance.
Later in the decade, when the crew size of the station increases from three to six people, a second three-seat Soyuz must remain permanently docked, so that all six crew members can be evacuated in any emergency. The Russians can increase their flight rate from two vehicles to four vehicles per year, but they need several years’ advanced warning to ramp up their production facilities, and that in turn requires increased funding.
It was this second Soyuz that Perminov referred to this week, when he indicated that Russia felt NASA was responsible for paying for it. Indeed, NASA had originally promised to provide exactly such a service, but canceled development of the U.S. spacecraft that would have provided it. From the Russian point of view, they can meet their obligations by substituting commercially acquired Russian vehicles instead.
Who’s extorting whom?
In the late 1990s, there appeared to be a torrent of technology transfer from the Russian missile industry to "rogue states," particularly Iran. Unemployed rocket scientists could be seen at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport with tickets to Tehran, where they would spend several months helping out with particular engineering roadblocks. Their pay rates, as reported by Russian journalist Yevgeniya Albats, were quite low — testifying to the total failure of interdiction efforts.
In an attempt to squeeze the Russian government into enforcing existing nonproliferation agreements, Congress and President Clinton put the Iran Non-Proliferation Act, or INA, into effect in 2000. It basically forbade NASA for sending any money to the Russian Space Agency until the White House certified that all leakage had stopped.
No such certification has yet been made, and based on reports of continued free-lance "consultations," no near-term certification is expected.
How NASA is playing its hand
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a NASA official told MSNBC.com it was very clear that a game was being played. “This is posturing by Russia, based on INA. We still don't have any relief from INA, although there are a lot of discussions going on at various levels of the administration and Congress,” the official said.
After the last contractual Russian launch next September, the official said, “our original agreements with the Russians expire. ... After that, the Russians are saying we'll become paying customers just like everyone else.”
“In the end, an agreement will likely be reached,” the official predicted, “but the Russians are pushing hard at every opportunity.”
During a Friday teleconference for reporters, Michael Kostelnik, NASA's deputy associate administrator for the space station and shuttle programs, hinted that NASA was looking for permission to pay the Russians.
"The only practical way [to transport space station crews] is with the Soyuz," he said. "Right now there is not a policy way ahead, with INA, but we are working very hard within the government to get a resolution."
Soyuz capsules will stay in the mix
Resolution of the issue is important, because with the resumption of shuttle flights, a new strategy for transporting the space station's long-term crews must be developed. Prior to the Columbia disaster, all but the very first crew were carried into space aboard shuttles, while Soyuzes were flown by short-term crews. Since 2003, of course, all station crews have launched on Soyuzes.
Now a new "mixed" strategy is emerging: Even after shuttle flights resume, Soyuzes would still carry two long-term crew members, with the third Soyuz seat reserved for a short-term paying customer. The third long-term crew member would be transported on the shuttle.
This arrangement would, for the first time, create overlapping tours of duty for the long-term crew. There would always be at least one experienced astronaut staying aboard to break in arriving crew members. While this would have some impact on crews not training together on Earth, it also will enhance the efficiency of handovers from one crew to the next.
NASA fights back?
Yet another NASA source privately advised that the current flap was a part of the “hardball negotiations” but he revealed that NASA negotiators were pulling some hitherto-unrecognized aces out of their sleeves. This person, who requested his name not be divulged, said that the precipitating event was not next April's Soyuz mission, but a seat aboard the STS-121 shuttle flight now slated to follow the first shuttle mission in May.
“In response to Russia announcing they will charge the U.S. for Soyuz seats after 2005,” the source explained in an e-mail, “NASA is charging Russia for their nationals to ride on the shuttle.”
The rates, he explained, were pegged to be the same. About 20 Russians have flown, without charge, aboard shuttle missions over the past 10 years.
The STS-121 connection is that the Russians have sold one of their “Russian” spots on the station to the European Space Agency, which will use it to send veteran astronaut Thomas Reiter into orbit. It was originally expected that NASA would give Reiter the seat on STS-121 that otherwise would have gone to a Russian cosmonaut, Sergey Volkov, who would have stayed aboard the station, raising the crew size back to three.
But now NASA has told Moscow that since this is a “Russian” seat, the Russians must pay for it. “The Russians predictably have a problem with this,” the source wrote, “and stopped training in retaliation.”
Alternately, goes the U.S. bargaining strategy, the Russians can swap seats on Soyuz flights for seats on shuttle flights on a one-for-one basis, with no cash changing hands.
But even that deal would not solve the looming issue of the funding for the second Soyuz bail-out capsule and other issues associated with the expansion of the space station. And on the more distant horizon is the period after 2010 when shuttle flights cease, years before astronauts can ride NASA's Crew Exploration Vehicle into orbit.
Americans may fly aboard Russian spacecraft, or perhaps Chinese spacecraft, or even perhaps commercial U.S. human space vehicles — but NASA’s own independent human spaceflight capability will suffer a gap of several years duration.
James Oberg, space analyst for NBC News, spent 22 years at the Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer.