Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Space Race is OVER

WASHINGTON—Russian leaders are trying to use the current thaw in relations with the U.S. to enhance cooperation in space, pushing for joint exploration efforts extending past the life of the international space station.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov spoke over the weekend with Charles Bolden, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and gave the Kremlin's strongest indication to date that it wants to team with the U.S. to explore more deeply into the solar system.

In a speech and brief interview Monday, Mr. Ivanov said the time is right for the two countries to share financial and engineering resources on possible ventures that would be launched past 2020 and travel beyond low-earth orbit.

The two countries already collaborate extensively on the space station, an international consortium that includes Russia, the U.S. and several other countries. The station, which operates in low-earth orbit, is slated to continue for at least another decade.

Both countries need increasing international support to advance in space. With the U.S. space-shuttle fleet slated for retirement next year and Congress and the White House at loggerheads over its replacement, NASA will be entirely dependent on Russian rockets and capsules to get astronauts to the space station for the next several years. Russia's space ambitions, meanwhile, require outside financial support. In his speech to a meeting organized by the Nixon Center, a foreign-policy group, on Monday, Mr. Ivanov pointedly referred to the immense cost of space exploration.

The Obama administration has also opened the door for enhanced space cooperation, and Kremlin officials appear persuaded the time is right to begin talks about new ventures. Mr. Ivanov said in the speech that "I firmly believe that all our cooperation in space" so far "should bring more and more fruits." Although he didn't mention details, Mr. Ivanov said that "it's time to look beyond" low-earth orbit.

Mr. Ivanov, who has oversight of Russia's aerospace efforts, said after the speech he was "pleased with the tenor of the discussions" with the NASA chief.

A NASA spokesman said Tuesday that "building upon several decades of successful cooperation," agency officials and their Russian counterparts "are continuing discussions on potential future cooperative activities in space."

Preliminary discussions have focused on ways to team up to develop more-powerful rockets capable of reaching Mars and other destinations, according to people familiar with the matter. But even with both sides eager for cooperation, major difficulties remain. Mr. Ivanov, for example, was quoted in the Russian media as saying his country wants to aggressively push ahead to develop nuclear-powered engines for rockets. But such a project would run into huge political and technical opposition in the U.S., which instead is looking to develop less-costly conventional boosters for longer space flights.

Until recent changes in direction instituted during the Obama administration, NASA policies effectively barred the agency from working with Russian or European partners to develop next-generation rockets or spacecraft intended to take astronauts back to the moon and eventually, on to Mars. By contrast, Mr. Bolden for months has been giving speeches and telling Congress that international cooperation is essential if NASA hopes to revive its manned-exploration programs.

In his speech, Mr. Ivanov put potential space ventures into a broader context of closer U.S.-Russian ties affecting various high-tech arenas, including nuclear energy and possible joint manufacturing and marketing of what would be the world's largest mass-produced cargo aircraft.

Referring to the positive results from joint training of space-station crew members, Mr. Ivanov held out "possibilities for furthering our cooperation in high-tech sectors, such as coordinating" rival satellite-navigation systems.

Another area in which Russian leaders continue to seek closer ties with the White House and with Boeing Co. involves proposals to jointly build and market the Antonov A-124 cargo plane. Mr. Ivanov said "it is really a good business idea" to have both Russian and American manufacturers turning out the four-engine propeller aircraft, which was initially developed by the Ukraine's Antonov design bureau. "We discussed a lot about this already with the State Department and the National Security Council," Mr. Ivanov said, adding that there is currently a six-year backlog of orders to lease the aircraft.

Similar proposals have been floating around for years. But this week, Mr. Ivanov ratcheted up the pressure for an agreement by saying that the planes could be used to transport troops and material to Afghanistan, without requiring any intermediate stops.

Boeing officials have resisted Russia's latest entreaties, apparently because they aren't convinced the likely market for the plane is large enough to justify major investments.

Boeing spokesman Jim Proulx declined to comment Tuesday on the specifics of the Russian proposal, but said "we regularly look at opportunities to partner with industry around the world" and such arrangements can "take a variety of forms."

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