[/caption]The Russian spacecraft producer Energiya has warned that it might only have enough money to launch the next two Soyuz flights unless funds are raised urgently.
This situation poses a difficult problem for future access to the International Space Station. The spacecraft producer requires funding in advance to pay for the construction of future Soyuz vehicles, so unless a solution is found, the launch of Expedition 19 that is expected to be carried by the Soyuz TMA-15 (around May 2009) could be the last…
Just when we thought getting access to the International Space Station (ISS) was hard enough, Energiya’s President Vitaly Lopota has announced his company has run out of money.
“We have vessels and funding for them for the next two trips, but I do not know what will happen with expeditions after that,” Lopota said on Friday. “We have no funds to produce new Soyuz craft. Unless we are granted loans or advance payment in the next two or three weeks, we cannot be responsible for future Soyuz production.”
According to other sources, the announcement came as Energiya failed to receive critical government-backed loans from commercial banks.
The Soyuz TMA-12 landed safely on Friday with cosmonauts Sergei Volkov, Oleg Kononenko and US space tourist Richard Garriott after being docked on the ISS for six months. Garriott did not stay for this period however, he was launched on October 12th with the crew of Expedition 18 (onboard Soyuz TMA-13 that will return in April next year). Friday was the first nominal landing of a Soyuz vehicle since TMA-9; both TMA-10 (Oct. 21st, 2007) and TMA-11 (April 19th, 2008) suffered separation anomalies, forcing “ballistic re-entries.” It must have been a relief for Volkov, Kononenko and Garriott to touch down on target, ending the spate of bad luck for Soyuz.
Soyuz is the primary method to get to and from the ISS (as you can probably guess from the above paragraph), and when the shuttle is retired in 2010, it will be the only method for the US to access the orbital outpost. However, this is a solution to the “5-year gap” between shuttle retirement and Constellation launch (scheduled for 2015) that many find difficult to come to terms with, especially with the increasing political discord between the US and Russia.
Even after US Congress signed a Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) waiver earlier this month, permitting NASA to buy Soyuz flights after 2011, it looks like the problems haven’t ended for US manned access to space. The waiver will be useless if there’s no Soyuz vehicles being built!
Whether the warning from Energiya’s president should be taken seriously or not, once again US space flight is being restricted by internal problems in other countries. More initiatives like NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program need to be considered to further stimulate private sector space flight. Wouldn’t it make more sense to purchase US rocket launches with SpaceX after 2010 rather than buying Soyuz flights? Fortunately the private sector is catching onto this idea, so hopefully we’ll have dependable means to transport cargo to the ISS — possibly even crew — after 2010…