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Russia thriving again on the final frontier

Four years ago, Russia’s space effort was on the ropes while NASA thrived. Today the tables are turned, and it’s Russia’s commercial space visions that are catching fire while NASA deals with troubles on the final frontier.
Experts of Russian Mission Control Centre watch docking of Discovery space shuttle
Russia's Mission Control Center comes alive in Korolyov for the shuttle Discovery's July 28 docking at the international space station.Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

The future of the Russian space program is just a stairway and a corridor away from its past.

On one side of the Federal Space Agency's Mission Control Center, just outside Moscow, you'll find a darkened auditorium, with plaques commemorating four decades’ worth of Soviet and Russian space crews. This is where ground controllers managed the Mir space station until its fall four years ago.

On the other side, the lights are on in a very similar auditorium, where controllers and a huge display screen keep track of the international space station. This is where Russia has placed its bets for at least the next decade — a decision that could have an impact on NASA's own vision for future space exploration.

Russia's role in supporting the space station takes the spotlight this weekend with the launch Friday night of a two-man relief crew and millionaire space passenger Greg Olsen aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule. The 10-day mission underlines how crucial Russia has been to the station's operation in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster and continuing safety concerns about the U.S. shuttles.

"It certainly is fair to say that the Russian space program saved the space station itself," said Yuri Karash, a space policy consultant based in Moscow.

Now the orbital outpost is a key point of contention as Russia re-energizes its space effort and tries to match NASA's ambitions for future exploration.

Russia's 10-year plan for space
What a difference four years makes: In 2001, when Mir plunged out of orbit, it looked as if Russia's space program was going down with it, scraping by on a budget of less than $200 million a year.

Today, boosted by Russia's oil revenue, the government has committed to a 10-year plan for space exploration, funded to the tune of $1 billion a year. That's far less than the price tag for NASA's 13-year, $104 billion plan to return to the moon. But while America's space effort is struggling with safety issues and tight budgets, Russia is now seen as having the world's safest, most cost-effective human spaceflight system.

The new Russian reusable spacecraft Klip
The new Russian reusable spacecraft Kliper is displayed at the MAKS-2005 International air and space show in the town of Zhukovsky, some 50 kms from Moscow, 16 August 2005. AFP PHOTO / MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)Mladen Antonov / AFP

Like NASA, the Russians plan to develop a new breed of spaceship: a winged craft called the Kliper, capable of carrying a crew of six and built in partnership with the European Space Agency. Like NASA, the Russians plan to work toward lunar landings in the latter half of the next decade, leading to the establishment of permanent moon bases as steppingstones to Mars and beyond.

Unlike NASA, the Russians plan to keep selling tickets to space, seeing it as a way to boost both budgets and public perception of the space program. Their goals are ambitious here as well, with plans to sell a trip around the moon for $100 million a seat.

Of course, the Russian space effort has never suffered from a shortage of grand plans. Among the ideas floated in the past are the Enterprise commercial space module, the free-flying Mini Station 1, the Marpost spacecraft for Martian exploration and yet another bargain-basement Mars mission. Nothing ever came of any of these.

"There are many more plans available than money," Karash observed.

This time, however, Russia's plans sound more ... well, down to earth.

Nikolai Sevastianov, the president and general designer of Russia's Energia rocket company, outlined for a development program that for the most part builds on tried-and-true hardware design.

Energia, the Russian space industry's equivalent of the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., is heavily involved in the space station construction.

"We are planning to build three additional modules which will be part of the ISS,” Sevastianov said, estimating that the Russian side of the station could be complete in 2011. 

He said Russia's 10-year space roadmap called for an expansion of satellite operations, drawing upon commercial as well as state funding. New lines of launch vehicles, such as the Angara rocket, would take their place alongside an upgraded version of the Soyuz rocket, Russia’s traditional launcher for manned spaceflight.

Kliper: Piloted spaceship gains its wings
Ironically, even as NASA is turning away from the winged shuttle to go with a wingless "Apollo on Steroids" capsule, Russia is planning its transition from the wingless Soyuz capsule to a winged Kliper space plane. The Russians hope that the Europeans will sign on as partners in the project by the end of this year, and that Kliper will make its first test flights by 2011.

Considering that the Soyuz has an unparalleled safety record, why would Russia want to mess with success? "The available hardware does not allow us to achieve new qualities in terms of human flight into space," said Alexei Krasnov, director of manned spaceflight programs for Russia's Federal Space Agency. "Only three crew members can fly on the Soyuz vehicle. That's pretty small."

Krasnov said the Kliper, like NASA's Crew Exploration Vehicle, could be configured in different ways, depending on the mission. "For example, for a flight to the international space station, it would be sufficient to have maybe two blocks, and for the flight to the moon, there would be an additional configuration added to provide for this capacity," he explained.

DSE-Alpha: Lunar tourism
Sevastianov said the same add-on strategy would be used if Space Adventures, the Virginia-based company that brokered Olsen's visit to the space station, came up with clients for the trip around the moon, known as the DSE-Alpha mission. The way he explains it, going around the moon wouldn't be as revolutionary as it sounds.

"Actually, we had a prototype of the Soyuz vehicle, called Zond, which went around the moon in the late 1960s and 1970 — and there were even turtles that flew aboard the vehicle," Sevastianov said.

Mark Wade

For the new lunar fly-around, the Soyuz would be beefed up with the type of navigation system already used on Yamal satellites, plus a tougher heat shield and a booster rocket called the Block-DM, which is already in production but would be equipped with an automatic docking system.

"As you can see, this technology has already been developed and is already in use," Sevastianov said. "Of course, we have a myriad of other details we have to work on, and we have to address the ground support issues, but these issues are all resolvable."

Sevastianov and Krasnov both emphasized that the round-the-moon tour is not part of Russia's wider plan for lunar landings. Krasnov said commercial ventures such as DSE-Alpha and Olsen's trip to the space station were aimed at improving the public's perception of spaceflight rather than advancing Russia's space program.

"It's like when you have mountain climbing," he explained. "Some people can train, qualify and go. Some years from now, a similar belief will be achievable for spaceflight in low Earth orbit."

Waystation or aging experiment?
Russia, like the U.S., sees the moon as central to the future of space exploration. Where they differ is how to get there.

The leaders of Russia's space effort see the station as essential to the next giant leap.

"In the future, it will be not only international territory, but an international spaceport," Sevastianov said. "Your president says that the moon will be the platform for flights to Mars. It's my opinion that the space station is the platform for the next step toward the moon."

In contrast, NASA sees the space station more in terms of an international obligation that has to be honored, as well as a trial run for the real adventure. "Until we establish missions back to the moon, it's the world's only real test bed for living in space," NASA spokesman Allard Beutel told

Once the new space initiative hits its stride, the space station doesn't figure all that prominently in NASA's grand plan. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin's description of the scenario for moon missions doesn't include the station at all, and this week he said the tilt of the station’s orbit means it can “not be a real steppingstone for exploration.”

Under NASA’s current plan, the Crew Exploration Vehicle that's slated to go into service by the year 2012 could be used to carry crew members to the space station as well as to the moon, depending on how it's configured.

But NASA is also planning to develop a new heavy-lift launch vehicle, based on shuttle technology, which would carry up the extra hardware required for trips beyond Earth orbit. The plan calls for the crew capsule and the heavy-lift payload to dock in orbit, without coming anywhere near the space station.

Troubles ahead?
NASA’s seemingly lukewarm support for the space station is "troublesome for the whole idea of international cooperation in space,” Krasnov said.

"Today, the international space station project lacks stability and perspective," he said. "The lack of perspective is a very big worry for the international community engaged in this project, in many aspects — in terms of the expenditures, planning, hardware, launch, the design of the space shuttle. The evident problems with the space shuttle fleet today put a question mark over whether this hardware will be launched."

Krasnov worried that NASA could leave the station in the lurch, scaring off potential partners in future space projects.

"There won't be any guarantees for anybody who might consider joining the United States in the new space exploration vision — that this vision would not be changed again someday," he said. "And then again, it would be a question of why we've done this much but have not achieved all that we planned for, and now we've jumped in a different direction."

Krasnov said working out the long-term future of the space station was the main topic on the international space agenda, first between the United States and Russia, then with the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan.

The Russians clearly favor taking a path to the moon that goes through the space station rather than around it. For example, Sevastianov said it would be more economical and reliable to assemble components for a moon mission at the space station instead of developing a new heavy-lift vehicle.

"As part of this space expedition, humans would first fly from Earth to the ISS," Sevastianov said. "And then we'll get all the necessary things and they'll be part of the complex, and humans will go on from there."

Why go to the moon at all?
But why will they go? One of the common criticisms of NASA's space vision is that neither the agency nor the White House has made a dramatic case for space exploration, beyond the sheer need to explore. Alexei Krasnov, the Russian space agency's director of manned spaceflight, tried to tackle the "Why Go to the Moon" question in more practical terms during an interview earlier this month with

Human space exploration is at a threshold, he said. " It's not spaceflight only for the sake of spaceflight anymore. We were there, we saw that, we've had that experience. Yes, we are gaining new experiences in terms of having humans in long-duration missions, and the impacts to the human body, and how to address those impacts. But basically, what we have failed to achieve so far are the industrial capabilities.”

Using the space station is the best way to concentrate on that, Krasnov said. “It was designed initially to have these capabilities, which we drifted from, in terms of the zero-gravity environment and the best environment for space science experiments."

Looking beyond Earth orbit, Krasnov said lunar expeditions had to be aimed at more than "just to have your foot on the surface, to plant the flag there again." He went back to the potential industrial exploitation of lunar mineral and chemical resources. "There are some interesting ideas in terms of possible energy sources as a spin-off for this."

By energy sources, Krasnov said he was referring to the potential use of lunar helium-3 as a fuel for fusion reactors. For years, advocates of lunar exploration have referred to the promise of helium-3; however, the development of reactors that could make use of such fuel is thought to be decades down the line, and even then, there could well be more cost-efficient sources of fusion fuel than the moon.

Will history repeat itself?
Although Russia and the United States have the same targets in mind — the moon, Mars and beyond — there's virtually no chance of a new international space race breaking out. Instead, the Russians seem to be positioning themselves for a place in an internationalized space exploration initiative.

"If there would be such a concept adopted by the international community, certainly with an appropriate decision on the U.S. side, there would be redundancy achieved, which is necessary anyway for a program of such complexity," Krasnov said.

It's happened before — with the international space station, as a matter of fact. Back in the 1990s, NASA determined that it would be just too expensive to go it alone on the Space Station Freedom project, and invited Russia to join in the venture. Russia, meanwhile, decided it was too expensive to keep up the aging Mir space station. Compromises were made, and a deal was struck.

The United States and Russia are likely to forge a similar compromise this time around. "At some point we could combine the two exploration programs," Karash said. "This would be the most effective division of labor between the countries."

Karash believes the space station will have to play a leading role in human spaceflight for another 15 years or so. But by that time, if bases are being built on the moon as planned, perhaps even the Russians will acknowledge that the station has run its course, he said.

"Unless America has lost its mind, it will never stop flying to the space station until they have the Crew Exploration Vehicle completed and they have another destination," Karash said. "Believe me, by that time not very many people will see the ISS as anything other than a space hotel."