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Russian Spacecraft Links Up to Station

With the Soyuz now the only means of ferrying U.S. astronauts to and from the facility, talk turns to Moscow's funding shortfall.

October 21, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A Soyuz spaceship with a three-person crew, including two of the world's most experienced astronauts, docked successfully at the international space station Monday.

With the American shuttle fleet grounded because of the February breakup of the space shuttle Columbia, the three-seat Russian Soyuz is the only means of ferrying crews to and from the orbiting station. A Soyuz is always attached to the station as an emergency escape vehicle.

Controversy over funding for additional Soyuz craft and Progress cargo vehicles took center stage at Mission Control just outside Moscow immediately after the smooth docking. Yuri P. Semyonov, head of Energiya Design Bureau, which manufactures the Soyuz, warned at a news conference that the program is jeopardized by a continuing funding shortfall. He sharply criticized both the Russian and U.S. governments.

Russian space officials have promised two Soyuz and four or five Progress flights next year, the minimum to keep the space station functioning.

But the Russian government, which has been slow to pay Energiya for the construction of those vehicles, is trying to get the United States to cover part of the cost. A Soyuz craft can be used for one flight up and one flight down.

NASA recently set a target date of mid-September to mid-October 2004 for the next shuttle flight. But that will be a test flight that will not take crew to or from the space station, Nikolai Moiseyev, first deputy director of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, told Russia's Itar-Tass news agency.

U.S. astronaut Michael Foale and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri are scheduled to spend 200 days at the station. They were joined on the flight up by Pedro Duque of Spain, a European Space Agency astronaut on his second space journey, who will return to Earth this month with American Edward Lu and Russian Yuri Malenchenko, who have been on board since April 28.

In August, Malenchenko wed Ekaterina Dmitriev through a satellite video link to Johnson Space Center in Houston, becoming the first person to be married in space. Texas law allows weddings in which one of the parties is not present.

Russian television Monday showed the new arrivals squeezing through the entrance to the station, then posing for the camera with Lu and Malenchenko.

"All the systems worked very well and smoothly," Kaleri told viewers. "Everything went in the automatic mode, which meant we were almost deprived of any work. We were just enjoying the flight. We're very happy to enter the station and see the guys and look around the place where we will be living."

When the station's previous crew returned in a Soyuz on May 4 in Kazakhstan, a malfunction caused the craft to go into a "ballistic descent" on a free-fall path, a second-choice backup mode. That caused the craft to land about 290 miles short of the intended landing site.

Rescue crews needed more than two hours to locate the capsule. By the time a spotter plane found it, the astronauts had opened the hatch and were standing on the ground waving. As a result of that incident, a satellite phone was sent up to the station with a Progress cargo shipment. The astronauts will carry it on their return to more easily contact searchers.

The three returning astronauts are to land in Kazakhstan early next Tuesday. They will come down in the Soyuz that had been serving as an emergency vehicle, while the one that docked Monday will become the new escape craft.

Foale, 46, is on his sixth trip into space. He had previously spent 168 days in orbit, including 134 days working at the Russian Mir station in 1997, a time when the crew successfully coped with a series of dangerous problems. He has made three spacewalks with a total length of 19 hours. He now becomes the first American to have worked on both Mir and the international station.

Kaleri, 47, spent a total of 415 days on three missions to the Russian Salyut and Mir stations and has spent 20 hours in space walks. Neither of those stations is still in orbit.

The still-unfinished international space station is a $100-billion project of the U.S., Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe.

Semyonov said at his news conference that the Russian government had not yet paid his company for a Progress cargo craft sent to the station in August, or for the spaceships now under construction.

Energiya "took out large loans for the construction of spacecraft, and we have nothing to pay these loans with," he said. "The financial situation is catastrophic."

The Russian government has insisted that because the Columbia disaster has left the space station dependent on Russian craft and increased the burden on the country's space program, the United States should cover some of the additional costs.

In order to help finance its space program, Russia has sold Soyuz trips for a reported price of $20 million, including a 2001 trip by California millionaire Dennis Tito.

Earlier this year, NASA appeared willing to consider the possibility of U.S. funding for Russian spacecraft. But along with general reluctance in Washington to spend the money, a U.S. law aimed at pressuring Russia to reduce its cooperation with Iran in the field of nuclear power has blocked any deal.

U.S. space officials have also indicated that NASA was doing its share by spending the money needed to get the shuttle flying again.

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