April 13, 2006

Space Race II?

Space Race II?

Russia's Skyward Gaze

Russia, powered by the influx of oil dollars, is regaining its space ambitions after a slack decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The country could send a manned mission to the moon by 2015, followed by one to Mars by 2030, according to a statement by Nikolai Sevastianov, head of the Russian space construction company RKK Energia, on the eve of the 45th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's pioneering flight on Vostok-1.

Could this be the beginnings of Space Race II? It seems a direct challenge to NASA's plan, presented by President Bush in January 2004, to send American astronauts back to the moon by 2020 and then to Mars and beyond.

To trim costs, Russia's lunar exploration program would rely on Soyuz and Progress spacecrafts in its first phase, while the second phase would see the construction of a $1.5 billion reusable Clipper shuttle. The Clipper should enter service between 2012 and 2015, eventually replacing Soyuz for flights to the International Space Station, while it will be also be used for moon exploration missions, according to Sevastianov. Energia plans to fly six manned missions to the moon (worth $2 billion), and eventually set up a permanent moon base to recover helium-3 for energy use, as resources on Earth are depeleted.

Though Russian government officials have spoken in support of the project, no promises were made. Energia has paid for the preliminary design work on its own, while trying to raise funds elsewhere.

Even in its heyday, Russia's space program operated on a shoestring, in comparison with lavish NASA funding, but even more so after 1991. In 2001-2003, actual state allocations for space exploration fell 26 percent short of the expected budget, preventing completion of seven projects, according to Russian space agency head Anatoly Perminov. In 2005, Russia's space budget stood at around $600 million, as compared to NASA's of $16 billion, AP reported.

Although the Russian government promised boosting space research funding in 2006 (up to $832 million total) and in the coming decade, the Russian space agency still has to find ways to make ends meet. The most common solutions are commercial satellites, space tourists, who pay $20 million per trip, and selling berths on Soyuz spacecraft to U.S. astronauts headed to the International Space Station.

Meanwhile, Russia's recent turn to religion and spirituality has brought ironic changes to Baikonur and beyond.

An Orthodox church was built at Baikonur, the Soviet spaceport in Central Asia, which Russia still uses for launches. A Russian Orthodox priest now blesses rockets and space crews prior to launch, while many cosmonauts take their own icons into orbit.

Along these lines, a Russian astrologist recently sued NASA for $302 million in moral damages following the agency's strike on the Comet Tempel 1, when it was about 83 million miles from Earth. She claimed that the strike "encroached on the system of spiritual and life values, as well as on the natural being of outer space, upsetting the natural balance of forces in the universe." After failing to find support in a Moscow city court, the astrologist is planning an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

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