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The recent Russian decision to cease transporting U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station after 2005 highlights two harsh realities few Americans have been willing to face: the Clinton administration did not plan well in building the ISS and the new Bush space exploration initiative has compounded the problem.
Together, they put U.S. access to its own space station in serious jeopardy and threaten to damage American-Russian relations, perhaps severely.
For most of 2004, officials at NASA and Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, have been trying to negotiate a new agreement to continue Russia’s ferrying of American astronauts to the space station after the present deal expires in 2005.
The Russians want to be paid for the services, but because the 2000 Iran Nonproliferation Act prevents NASA from paying Russia any money, the agency has proposed a barter deal: NASA would pay for its Soyuz rides by writing off some 3,000 hours of work time owed to the agency by Russian astronauts.
Each work hour is worth about $20,000, so the value of the owed time should be enough to pay for three tickets aboard Soyuz.
At first, the negotiations seemed hopeful, but on Dec. 29, Roskosmos chief Anatoly Perminov announced the deal was off.
“From 2006, we will put U.S. astronauts into orbit only on a commercial basis,” Perminov said.
Russia’s decision was prompted partly by a need for cash. Though its space program is financially robust – Russia ran the world’s most active launch industry in 2004 – it does not have unlimited funds and cannot afford to pretend to pay for missions with empty paper transactions.
The decision also was an attempt to prod NASA to get the space shuttle flying again. As Perminov noted in an interview with the ITAR-TASS news agency, the United States needs “to fulfill its obligations, which at the present moment it is doing far from ideally.”
Those U.S. obligations regarding the space station are limited almost entirely to the grounded shuttle fleet, a circumstance caused by the decisions of President Bill Clinton and NASA administrator Dan Goldin.
In 1993, Clinton decided the space station project, then called Freedom, was too expensive and did not meet his foreign policy goals.
“We’ve come to the end of the Cold War,” he said in 1994 on the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
“I can no longer be president and just tell you that we’ll do everything in terms of our competition with the Russians, because it’s not true anymore. We’re cooperating with the Russians.”
Clinton then ordered Goldin to redesign the space station project to include the Russians in the deal.
Goldin actually liked the idea of a joint construction project with Russia. By turning over some of the station’s most critical components, including its lifeboat, unmanned cargo carrier and initial habitable module, he could save NASA the cost of developing these components and speed the orbiting facility’s construction.
On the Russian side, President Boris Yeltsin and his Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin saw the deal as a way to pay the costs of keeping the orbital Mir space laboratory flying as well as finance the country’s space program during the difficult period after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The consequence of these political negotiations – making ISS a demonstration project for cooperative foreign policy – was the station became an engineering project designed by politicians, the unfortunate outcome of which was the American side got hosed.
By giving the Russians the job of providing the cargo freighter and the lifeboats, Goldin and Clinton left U.S. access to the station vulnerable if the shuttle fleet had to be grounded – which is exactly what happened following the Columbia disaster on Feb. 1, 2003.
Without the shuttle, the Russians essentially have controlled ISS access for the past two years.
Even if NASA’s return-to-flight efforts are successful, the situation will repeat itself in a few years because George W. Bush’s space initiative — which was announced Jan. 14, 2004 – specifically calls for the retirement of the shuttle fleet as soon as it completes construction of the station in 2010.
Yet, that same initiative does not call for the first manned flight of the shuttle replacement, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, until 2014. This leaves a four-year gap, in which NASA is left with no way to crew and supply its own space station except to turn to the Russians again.
Even worse, giving the Russians the job of providing the station’s habitable module meant the Russian half of ISS would be self-sufficient, with recyclable environmental systems, while the U.S. half would not be so autonomous. In fact, if the two halves were separated today, only the Russian half could continue to function and be occupied. Once again, the Clinton-Goldin arrangement left the U.S. part of the station completely dependent on the Russians.
The political dangers of this situation are obvious.
Consider what could happen if the United States is unable to send crews to the completed station in 2010 and the Russians end up taking it over, selling tourist tickets and controlling its use. After spending almost $100 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars to build the facility, such a situation would cause considerable anger and resentment between the two nations, damaging their relationship perhaps for decades to come.
International cooperation can work, as in the case of the Cassini-Huygens probe to Saturn, in which each party had discreet goals that, once accomplished, closed the book on their responsibilities.
Moreover, the Russians have been a generally good and reliable partner in building the ISS. Though they have squeezed the United States for every dollar possible in negotiations, each time they have made a deal they generally have kept their end of the bargain.
Overall, however, the ISS situation demonstrates the potential pratfalls of cooperative international efforts in space. Designed with no specific goal and no clearly defined ownership, the station has left everyone in unsatisfactory circumstances, risking a Russia-U.S. rift with the possibility of disaster.
Unless the Bush administration faces this uncomfortable situation and does something about it, the International Space Station will, in the coming years, do more to fuel distrust and friction between its participants than to promote international good will.
Robert Zimmerman is an independent space historian. His most recent book, “Leaving Earth,” was awarded the Eugene M. Emme Award by the American Astronautical Society for the best popular space history in 2003.