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Astronauts Return From Mission to International Station

Crew of two Russians and a Belgian cites good working relations, but financial problems threaten the program's global partnership.

November 11, 2002|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A joint Russian-Belgian crew returned to Earth on Sunday after delivering an upgraded Soyuz TMA-1 spacecraft to the International Space Station, where the vehicle will serve as a lifeboat in case of emergency.

The 12-day mission -- originally scheduled to include American singer Lance Bass from the pop group 'N Sync as a corporate-sponsored space tourist -- came amid concerns about how budget cuts in the Russian space program may affect the station's operations.

Bass, who underwent training for the journey, would have been the world's third space tourist, for a reported fee of $20 million. His backers had planned to produce a TV miniseries documenting the preparations and the flight, but they failed to come up with the money in time.

Russian space officials hoped that such paying passengers would help keep their program going.

Belgium's Crown Prince Philippe flew to Kazakhstan to greet flight commander Sergei Zaletin, engineer Yuri Lonchakov and Belgian engineer Frank de Winne, who said they felt fine despite a bumpier-than-usual nighttime landing.

"It was good. The flight went normally," De Winne told reporters at the site in Russian. "We fulfilled all the scientific programs."

In keeping with Russia's space traditions, the crew members left their autographs on the Soyuz capsule, which was charred from the heat of reentry.

The three also bantered and praised one another for the media.

Lonchakov noted that De Winne had learned Russian in six months.

De Winne said the Russian crew was "very helpful and attentive" to him on his first space voyage. "This is why the whole flight went so well," he said.

"I will be brief," Zaletin responded. "I will now fly only with Frank."

This is the sort of international friendship that the space station program is supposed to encourage, yet the financial problems it has run into sometimes promote bickering among the partners.

Under a 1996 agreement with NASA, the Russian Aviation and Space Agency must replace the three-person Soyuz escape craft attached to the station approximately every six months, as its batteries begin to run out.

The new, improved model delivered by the latest flight boasts about 40 pieces of upgraded equipment and more comfortable seats that can accommodate bigger astronauts.

Russian space officials said last month, however, that they might not have enough money next year to meet their Soyuz commitments, which extend to 2006. After that, the United States is supposed to provide the emergency escape vehicle, but a NASA prototype, the seven-person X-38, was canceled as too costly. A proposed small orbital space plane, which would be launched by rocket, is considered unlikely to be available before 2010.

Until NASA has something ready, Soyuz craft are the only lifeboat alternative. The U.S. shuttle can dock at the station but can stay there only up to two weeks, primarily because it lacks solar batteries and requires a lot of power, said Sergei K. Gromov, a spokesman for Energiya Design Bureau, the corporation that designs the Soyuz.

Russia has expressed a willingness to provide more Soyuz craft -- even two at a time -- if NASA is willing to pay a reported asking price of $65 million per craft.

"We thought that for the time being, NASA could pay for the use of a second Soyuz," a Russian space official, who spoke on condition he not be further identified, said Sunday. "But this suggestion was not accepted by our partners."

NASA officials have said some sort of deal for the continued supply of Soyuz craft after 2006 is likely to be worked out because that is the only way to continuously have crews on the orbiting station.

The financial issue will be discussed at a December meeting of the heads of the U.S., Russian, European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies cooperating in the project, said Sergei A. Gorbunov, a spokesman for the Russian agency.

*

Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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