Americans hitch a ride to space via Russia

With the American space shuttle program now over, NASA is relying on Russia's Soyuz to transport its astronauts to space.

Now that the last shuttle has been retired, the obvious question is, "What's next?" It'll be years before NASA flies another manned mission. In the meantime, Americans will still travel into space. But they'll have to rely on the Russians for a lift. CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports from Moscow.

U.S. astronaut Cady Coleman is going to work on the space station. Her commute is 220 miles straight up on Russia's Soyuz.

If the space shuttle was the Cadillac of space transport, the Soyuz is the Honda Civic. Coleman has a poetic way of saying it is rather cramped.

"You have a window about six inches from your face," she said. "It's a very intimate way to be in space."

Atlantis lands, NASA's shuttle program ends

Now that Soyuz is the only way for U.S. astronauts to travel up and down, NASA keeps a full-time manager who lives at Russia's space complex near Moscow. He's Mark Polansky, who resides in a suburban-style home built especially for visiting Americans. He was an air force officer back when the us and the then-soviet union battled it out for space supremacy.

"I was a fighter pilot when the Cold War was still going on," he said. "And if anybody had told me that when I was flying F-15's that I'd now be living with my family in Russia, I'd have never believed them in a million years."

In 1957, the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite and the space race. Four years later, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin went into orbit and round one went to the Soviet Union.

Eight years later, the U.S. evened up the score by putting a man on the moon.

But the astronomical costs of this race helped bankrupt the Soviet Union and end the Cold War. Only America could continue building new shuttles. The Russians had to stick with the 1960s-era Soyuz, which did bring Cady Coleman safely back to earth just last month.

"Does it make you uneasy that here is no plan B anymore?" asked Palmer. "It's the Soyuz or nothing?"

"I don't think we could have a more dependable alternative than we have right now with the Soyuz," said Coleman.

Dependable, yes. And a monopoly -- which lets the Russians charge NASA $60 million a ride, contributing roughly 10 percent of the entire space budget.

Of course, $60 million buys more than just a round trip on the Soyuz. American astronauts also get an extensive training program, which includes a dip in what may be the world's most specialized swimming pool.

But there are undercurrents of resentment at NASA that America's space program is now hostage to Russian technology. It's an issue that Palmer brought up with Oleg Kotov, deputy chief at the Gagarin Training Centre.

"You hear that from them? asked Palmer.

"Yes, yes. Absolutely," said Kotov.

"Does it make you mad?"

With a smile, Kotov replied: "No, I think it is political."

Starved for money for most of the '90's, Russia's dilapidated space program seemed to prove they'd lost the space race. Selling seats on the Soyuz to American astronauts at least let's them call it a draw.

  • Elizabeth Palmer
    Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."