Making Progress? Russia's Financial Problems Could Impact ISS Occupation
Thu Apr 25, 9:03 AM ET
By Anatoly Zak, SPACE.com
Russia’s financial woes may force NASA (news - web sites) and its international partners to evacuate the permanent crew of the International Space Station (news - web sites) as early as the fall of this year, according to a senior Russian space official.
Yuri Grigoriev, Deputy Designer General at RKK Energia, a leading Russian company in the ISS project, said that the lack of government funds needed to build crucial supply ships could force the project's partners to abandon the station in November.
RKK Energia builds the Progress cargo ships that deliver supplies such as fuel, water and food to the outpost. However, the lack of federal funding has forced the company to delay the construction of the supply ships needed for several upcoming missions to the station in 2003. Progress vessels are estimated to cost between $20 million and $50 million depending on the current state of the Russian economy.
There are several Progress ships at different levels of production in Russia at the moment, however, due to lack of funding, RKK Energia cannot purchase hardware needed from its subcontractors to complete the assembly of several Progress spacecraft. Already this year, RKK Energia has cut the number of re-supply flights to the station from the original six to three.
"Unless we receive money within a few months, we will not able to finish the Progress craft that absolutely must to fly in January, as well as several vehicles for later missions," Grigoriev said. "We are talking about millions of dollars."
According to Grigoriev, the Russian government covers between one-third and one-quarter of the supply costs needed to keep the ISS permanently occupied. But as a result of the funding problems, Russian space officials have had to draw contingency plans to evacuate the station’s long-term crew. These plans were drawn up in coordination with all the ISS partners, including top officials at NASA. A final decision on the future of the station will have to be made by July at the latest, Grigoriev said.
If additional funds can't be found by the summer, the last permanent expedition to the ISS would have to leave the station in November 2002. Grigoriev said the crew would either use the Soyuz rescue vehicle or take the space shuttle that was previously scheduled.
Grigoriev said the station would continue to host visiting crews delivered by either the shuttle or by Russian Soyuz spacecraft. However, unless NASA uses a shuttle to transport supplies, visitors would not be able to stay onboard much longer than seven or 10 days. The availability of Progress supply ships has been problematic for the entire life of the space station and NASA and its partners have costly contingency plans should the freighters become unavailable.
The ISS, designed as a permanent human outpost in space, has been continuously occupied since November 2000. In August 1999, similar financial problems forced Russia to abandon the Mir space station (news - web sites), which had been continuously occupied since 1989.
Grigoriev said the unmanned operation of the ISS would pose a number of challenges, however it wouldn’t be impossible. "This station is in a very good shape and it would be able to survive all kinds of contingencies," Grigoriev said.
In the past, the ISS had experienced malfunctions of its flight control system, which were fixed by the station crew. "Without people onboard these problems would be harder to fix however, I do not think we would ever face the situation we had with the Salyut-7," Grigoriev said.
In 1985, a malfunction onboard the Soviet Salyut-7 space station, during its unmanned flight, left the station paralyzed and frozen in orbit. A specially trained salvage crew was eventually able to dock with the dead outpost and bring it back to life.