Russia's Space Program Cash-Strapped

Russia's decision to suspend space tourist flights after the Columbia disaster will cost it $45 million, and the country needs other sources of foreign cash to ferry crews and supplies to the international station during the break in U.S. space shuttle flights, Russia's space chief said Thursday.

Russian Aerospace Agency Director Yuri Koptev said that Russia was ready to fill in the gap in shuttle flights to the station with its Soyuz crew capsules and Progress cargo ships, but added that other partners in the project should cover the additional costs, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Russia has budgeted the equivalent of $130 million to fulfill its obligations to the International Space Station, or ISS, project this year — "barely enough" to pay for the two Soyuz and three Progress ships it has already pledged to send to the station, said Koptev during a trip to India Thursday.

Another two to three cargo ships will be needed each year to run the station without shuttles, and each costs about 700 million rubles ($22 million), Koptev said. "The approach to the 2004 ISS budget should be changed" to pay Russia for the extra spacecraft, the ITAR-Tass quoted him as saying.

In the past, U.S. shuttles have ferried long-term crews to the station, while Russian rockets have carried cosmonauts and space tourists on short visits. The cosmonauts fly up on a fresh Soyuz craft — leaving it behind as an escape module for the crew — and return on the old one.

An American and a South African have paid a reported $20 million each to fly to the space station aboard Russian rockets, and Russia had planned to send more space tourists to the station this year.

Mikhail Sinelshchikov, a Russian space agency official in charge of the country's manned space program, said earlier this week that Russia would stop sending paying tourists and crews on short-term visits to the station while shuttle flights are suspended.

"If we cancel two (short-term) missions to the ISS this year, we will lose $45 million already included in the space agency budget for this year," Koptev was quoted as saying.

He said that his agency would start detailed talks with NASA in 2-3 weeks on how to run the station during the break in shuttle flights. "According to estimates, it might take from half-year to two-and-half years to resume the shuttle flights," Koptev said, according to the ITAR-Tass.

By Vladimir Isachenkov

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