MOSCOW --This summer will prove crucial for the Russian space program. First of all, the U.S. Congress will decide whether to buy Soyuz spacecraft for flying crews to the International Space Station.
In early June, NASA and Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) delegations negotiated in the United States. However, the U.S. decision will be far more important for Moscow than for the Americans.
NASA will lack manned spacecraft for reaching the ISS after U.S. space shuttles are grounded in 2010, pending the introduction of a new transport system in 2013.
But it would be an exaggeration to say that top NASA managers are seriously worried about this. In August 2006, President Bush said interplanetary missions were becoming the main aspect of the U.S. space program. Washington, which has already spent $100 billion on the ISS project, continues to support it only through sheer inertia.
However, the Russian space program revolves almost completely around the ISS. According to Vitaly Lopota, CEO of the Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, the project annually receives $600 million, or 50 percent of the national space budget.
Russian analysts believe that the ISS project requires at least $1.2 billion a year until 2015. This is why Moscow has to sign the Soyuz contract with the United States, no matter what.
The ISS project leaves a lot to be desired. The station's Russian segment has not been completed: only three out of 10 modules are in service today. Due to acute power shortages, the modules operate below their ability. Moreover, the ISS telecommunications network, the pillar of any space mission, is not very good. Much has been said about the ISS's inadequate scientific program. Certainly, ISS experiments have not yet improved living standards on Earth.
Paradoxically, the ineffective ISS probably saved the Russian space program in the "cash-strapped" 1990s, when the country's space industry managed to stay afloat by building manned Soyuz spacecraft and Progress automatic cargo craft.
Nevertheless, virtually all of the Russian space program's state funding is spent on manned missions.
On June 4, Yury Osipov, president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the country was rapidly losing its leadership in the sphere of scientific space projects, and that it had orbited only two space probes after the abortive launch of the Mars-96 spacecraft in 1996.
"Many projects are being postponed each year, and foreign partners are withdrawing from them. The United States invested $100 million into the absolutely unique Radioastron project but eventually decided to call it quits because Moscow repeatedly put off the launch for the lack of funding. Failure to abide by project deadlines is a major problem," Osipov said.
Apart from international scientific programs, Russia lacks its own automatic probes. Weather-satellite and remote-sensing satellite projects are still in their early stages.
In an article published on the official Roscosmos site on June 4, Lopota said 95 percent of the U.S. space budget was being spent on near-Earth projects, and that long-range missions still received only 3 percent to 5 percent.
In effect, President Bush's politically motivated statements differ completely from U.S. economic requirements.
Despite appearances, NASA, which receives 14-fold greater state funding than Roscosmos, is still in no hurry to finance manned and interplanetary missions, preferring to implement cost-effective projects instead. Consequently, we could learn something from the experience of our U.S. partner.