Monday, 10 March 2014

Space without frontiers

Preparations for tomorrow morning’s landing in Kazakhstan of two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut continue unabated against a backdrop of increasing tensions over Russia's armed incursion into Ukraine.

And NASA is once again confronted with the nightmare of a potential diplomatic roadblock thanks to its reliance on Russia for transporting its astronauts to Earth orbit and back.

Nearly two dozen NASA officials and medical personnel are in Kazakhstan to greet the three man crew, which is led by veteran Russian commander Oleg Kotov, a native of the Crimea region.

The NASA team joins the Russian-led recovery crew, a fleet of helicopters, fixed-wing surveillance aircraft and all-terrain ground vehicles to quickly reach the Soyuz capsule after it parachutes to Earth.

This month's comings and goings at the International Space Station (ISS) highlight the interdependence of the US and Russian space efforts.
Just two weeks after tomorrow’s landing NASA's Steven Swanson is to ride another Russian Soyuz craft up to the station, again in the company of two Russians.

Under current arrangements, NASA astronauts can only get to and from the ISS with Russian help, due to the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011 before an alternative US launcher was in place. Russia charges NASA $70 million for each astronaut round trip.

If Russia's confrontation with Ukraine and the West does develop into the worst diplomatic crisis of our generation it could have potential consequences for space exploration, though based on past experience it looks unlikely - at least for the timing being.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden stated last week that the space station programme had so far been “resilient to international crises” since Russian formally joined the effort in 1993.

"I think people lose track of the fact that we have occupied the ISS now for 13 consecutive years uninterrupted, and that has taken us through multiple international crises," he said.

The three returning space farers – Kotov, his fellow Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy and NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins - have now completed their final weekend of a 166-day mission aboard the ISS.

They launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 25 September and arrived at the 450-ton orbiting outpost six hours later.

The first phase of their return to Earth starts this evening when they will enter their Soyuz TMA-10M capsule and close hatches with the space station at around 2045 GMT.

Undocking is set for two minutes after midnight, followed by a burn of the Soyuz rocket thrusters at 0230 GMT to slow the craft's velocity enough to fall back into the atmosphere.

Touchdown - southeast of the town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan - is scheduled for 0324 GMT (0924 am local time at the landing site).