International Space Station Proves a Diplomatic Success, if Nothing Else
While its scientific merits remain debatable and its cost busted budgets years ago, the international space station has proven successful in at least one important mission: as a vehicle for diplomacy.
Today, at about 3:40 p.m. PDT, U.S. astronauts Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin will leave the orbiting station aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule filling in for the grounded U.S. shuttle fleet.
NASA’s top official will be on hand to greet the crew when it arrives Sunday at Star City, a hub of Russia’s space program, after a scheduled landing in the steppes of northern Kazakhstan. It will be the first time U.S. astronauts have returned to Earth in a Soyuz craft.
For the rest of this year at least, Russian spaceships will be essential for keeping the space station manned and supplied while NASA scrambles to resume shuttle flights following Columbia’s breakup on Feb. 1.
Remarkably, officials and analysts from both countries say, U.S.-Russian cooperation in space has survived unscathed, despite tensions between the two countries over the Iraq war. Critical decisions on the space station were made during the run-up to the war -- when Russian and the U.S. officials were sparring sharply at the U.N. -- and after war broke out.
If anything, the two countries and their European, Japanese and Canadian partners have apparently deepened their commitment to the $100-billion space station venture in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster.
Europe agreed to postpone scheduled trips to the station by Spanish and Dutch astronauts to help conserve food and water grown scarce because of lost shuttle flights.
Russia accelerated funding for a new, unmanned Progress vehicle to supply the station later this year or early next. And the United States quietly deflected Russia’s initial requests for extra money, adhering to a U.S. law prohibiting direct funding to Moscow over an issue involving transfer of militarily useful technology to Iran.
“You have a group of countries that have come together as a partnership,” said John Schumacher, a senior international affairs official at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “We’ve got live human beings on orbit. That’s certainly our focus, and all these governments are very supportive of that.”
Russian officials agree, even though they are still pressing the United States and others for financial assistance.
“We didn’t feel ... the war in Iraq could really affect our cooperation in space,” said Nikolai Moiseyev, deputy director of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency. “We still have full understanding with our American partners. Thank God the [Columbia] tragedy was not aggravated any further by potential complications.”
The war in Iraq is not the only diplomatic test the space station partnership has survived. Russia was at odds with the United States and much of Western Europe in 1999 over NATO’s air war in Kosovo and Serbia. Yet space station assembly and planning continued before, during and after that conflict.
The experiences of 1999 and 2003 show a profound shift in American and Russian attitudes toward space. During the Cold War, space was seen as another theater for the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. President Reagan, when he first proposed a new orbiting research platform in 1984, dubbed it Space Station Freedom, in part to highlight his opposition to Soviet communism.
But that changed when the Soviet Union collapsed. In 1993, the United States and Russia agreed to build what was renamed simply the international space station. From the start, advocates of the station said its benefits would be scientific and diplomatic.
Construction of the space station began in 1998, using the shuttle fleet’s heavy cargo capacity. It has been built slowly, in stages, and at great cost to the United States, Russia and more than a dozen other countries that have joined the partnership. This year, before Columbia disintegrated on reentry into the atmosphere, the United States had hoped to make significant strides toward completing the core of the station.
Now those construction missions have been put off until next year, assuming shuttles are flying by then.
Advocates tout the ongoing experiments aboard the station in biology, physiology and other fields. They say the investment in the station will pay off in years to come. To many U.S. scientists, however, the research value of the station remains at best unproven. So is the notion, advanced years ago, that the station could be a jumping-off point for more distant destinations.
But events since Feb. 1 have shown how its sponsors have rallied together to support the station during a crisis in the U.S. space program.
Conferring continually through mission control rooms in Russia and Houston and through regular teleconferences of key players around the world, the space agencies quickly determined to scale back the regular crew aboard the station, from three members to two. They studied how to use upcoming Progress and Soyuz flights to ensure the station would have enough food and water -- a process that involved some shifts in previously scheduled research priorities.
Russian officials initially said they needed roughly $100 million to finance the construction of new spacecraft.
But NASA officials said the agency cannot pay for construction of any extra Russian space vehicles because of the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000. That law restricts payments to Russia made in connection with the space station unless the U.S. confirms that Moscow is committed to preventing the transfer to Iran of technology useful in development of ballistic missiles or nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.
U.S. complaints about Russian support for Iran’s nuclear power program -- seen by Washington as a cover to obtain sensitive technologies for nuclear bombs -- has meant that the law has been a firm barrier to any American funding of additional Russian space vehicles.
Faced with this sticking point, Russian officials relented in April and committed nearly $40 million to jump-start the resupply missions. U.S. officials praised the action afterward and hinted others might eventually be able to compensate Russia in some way for the expense.
NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has unstinting praise for Russian officials. “They have done a spectacular job of following through in what was a very hard circumstance,” he told reporters.
Anderson reported from Washington, Holley from Moscow. Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report from Moscow.