Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Russia Watch: A new direction in Space

Slow and steady, by choice and necessity because of chronic impoverishment, Vladimir Putin's last week as President of the Russian Federation seemed lacking in the spectacular.

Not so in Space, however, as strong signals emerged indicating Russia was straining for a new direction, perhaps even its own "vision," maintaining her well-earned reputation as pioneering and experienced in space exploration. Uncharacteristic of the late, unlamented Soviet Union, were mixed signals also, and no shortage of what seems to be some odd ideas from certain circles and other ideas unusual in reasonableness.

Unmistakeably, however, something new is happening, as any veteran Russia watcher would tell you. As Nancy Atkinson for Universe Today as summed up this morning, thereby saving me the trouble of chronicling the same list, suddenly new pronouncements are coming from Moscow turning heads not just in Foggy Bottom but also among the world's space watchers.

Perhaps someone in the shuffling bureaucracy, as Putin ends his presidency and assumes the Prime Ministership, dispatched a message telling comrades, old and new, "celebrate," and celebrate loudly, for it may seem unseemly Ames Research Center seems to be showing more of a tribute to Yuri Gagarin than Russia!

In the past few days Roscosmos first called upon our fellow international partners to extend commitments to the International Space Station another five years, through 2020; for it will take this long, they indicated, for Russians to complete their segment of the last phases of the station's construction, and another $5 Billion (US) beyond "availability" to fulfill present commitments.

Among other mixed messages were an announcements Baikonur, where Gagarin and Korolov and Laika and Sputnik made spectacular history over fifty years of Volvo-like dependable launches, might be given up in accord with wishes widely expressed by Kazakhstan, perhaps to unstall long-stalled negotiations it's former satellite nation suddenly to begin anew. If so, it worked. Novosti announces the vast spent booster and space debris filled Steppes may not be abandoned after all, at least before 2050.

It was also reported Roscosmos might be getting out of the Space Tourist business, as well, only to be followed by denials. It now appears this won't be happening, at least until 2010.

However bleak their short term plans may seem, like the United States, also confronting ambitious programs channeled by a "pay as you go" reality, Roscosmos seems to be embracing a new vision beyond mere self-continuity, but constrained to "the Out Years," in budgetary terms.

As a new memorial to Laika was unveiled, Roscosmos strained past ISS toward announced ambitions for a orbiting interplanetary construction platform, "sometime after 2020" and presumably coincident with U.S. plans to return permanently to the Moon.

From that platform, about which little else is known other than an idea, monkeys as well as men may be dispatched to Mars.

And finally, new boosters, after a long period of dependence of tried and true but outdated vehicles, appear to be the clearest part of a new period when Russia and its space industry seem determined to join Japan, a fast but steady China, an equally determined United States and advancing Europe, in reclaiming its glory in space.
Somethings is up, if only the Russian gaze, trained once again on tomorrow, and beyond the rugged present.

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