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Does Russia Need A Space Shuttle?

ShattleIt does. But not such a behemoth as the Energiya-Buran system, whose first and last mission took place 15 years ago - on November 15, 1988 - and which, according to Lieutenant-General Georgy Lysenkov, who headed the 1987 state commission on the Soviet shuttle project, "absorbed an annual Soviet budget". What Russia needs now is a reliable and inexpensive space workhorse that can be used over and over again.

As it happens, it already exists in principle.

This system is essential if we remember that manned flights are central to Russia's space programme. And that their ultimate destination is now the International Space Station (ISS). The heads of the main Russian space agencies, Rosaviakosmos and the Russian Rocket and Space Corporation Energiya, seem to have forgotten their differences and have agreed that Russia's presence on the ISS is necessary. Rosaviakosmos chief Yuri Koptev, addressing a news briefing at the MAKS-2003 air show outside Moscow at the end of August, said that Russia could not afford to lose the ISS, "as a base for its space research".

What kind of research? When interviewed by this RIA Novosti analyst early in November, Yuri Grigoryev, Energiya deputy general designer, emphasised that only sustained orbital studies can guarantee the creation of new technologies and comprehensive tests of advanced materials and elements. Such work is also needed to judge possible new technological solutions on the Earth.

But the leaders of our space industry are worried that Russia may soon be just edged out of the ISS programme, because for lack of financing its role is currently reduced to a space carrier. Today all ISS work hinges on Russian spacecraft, but when America resumes shuttle flights, the situation may change.

In all probability, Russian capacities at the station may be difficult to boost in the near future not only for economic reasons, but also because of a strong US reluctance to see a growing Russian presence on the ISS. But without our own research modules "we will become a second-rate country good enough only to service the station," said Koptev.

But why second-rate? And why is the carrier role, especially when it uses a state-of-the-art multiple transport, humiliating? On the contrary, this function may help Russia to develop a new type of spacecraft, or in effect a very relatively new one.

Of course, given a proper reapportionment of funds, the ideas of Energiya dating from the late 80s may be turned to good account. They provided not only for the giant-sized Buran, but also for the inexpensive orbital ship Zarya based on the Zenith medium-class carrier rocket that is successfully exploited today in the Russian-American Sea Launch programme. This is especially true since the basic design documentation had been prepared by January 1989. The craft's construction can be started even today. The Zarya, 5 metres long and 4.1 metres in diameter, was intended to deliver 2- to 8-member crews and a payload of up to 3 tonnes to near-Earth orbiting complexes. It can be used in both the manned and unmanned modes. It can stay in pace for no fewer than 195 days. Moreover, it can also serve as a lifeboat for ISS crews.

The expertise of designing, manufacturing and operating one-shot carrier rockets and spacecraft was used to the utmost in devising the multiple space ship. The aerodynamic shape of a recoverable Zarya is similar to that of a Soyuz descent module, while some of the on-board systems, instruments and units were taken from the Soyuz TM. In other words, if a Zarya ever flies to outer space, its reliability will be high.

Prospects for Russia using a multiple space transport system are good, considering the consensus of its space agencies concerning the ISS. A certain incentive might be a 55 per cent hike in Russia's space funding expected in 2004.

Andrei Kislyakov, RIAN