Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

In this Sunday, June 5, 2011, file photo, the Russian Soyuz TMA-02M space ship that will carry new crew to the International Space Station, ISS, is transported from hangar to the launch pad at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. (Dmitry Lovetsky/AP/Dmitry Lovetsky/AP)
In this Sunday, June 5, 2011, file photo, the Russian Soyuz TMA-02M space ship that will carry new crew to the International Space Station, ISS, is transported from hangar to the launch pad at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. (Dmitry Lovetsky/AP/Dmitry Lovetsky/AP)

The shuttle era over, questions abound as NASA turns to Soyuz capsules Add to ...

An era has ended, and space travel is now only for those willing to learn Russian, relocate to rundown Zvezdny Gorodok, the Star City training centre near Moscow, and squeeze into a cramped capsule.

Three decades of shuttle flights concluded this week amid mixed emotions from the world's historical space powers.

Commentators in the U.S. fretted that NASA lost the lead position in space exploration while Russians wondered whether their country has trapped itself with the burden of transporting people into space with old technology.

Atlantis, the last operating space shuttle, landed before dawn on Thursday. Once stripped and cleaned, it will become a permanent display at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Nearby, at the Cape Canaveral Radisson hotel, NASA will co-sponsor a job fair next week for laid-off shuttle workers as the agency is now retaining private firms to develop the spaceships that will carry its astronauts.

But those flights won't happen until 2016 at the earliest.

Until then, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, is the only organization that can send humans into space on a regular basis. The only rides to the International Space Station will be aboard Soyuz, the single-use capsule that was designed in the Soviet era.

Roscosmos marked the last shuttle landing with a statement posted only on the Russian-language part of its website Tuesday. It said, not modestly, that "Now … begins the Soyuz era - the era of reliability."

Canada is affected too. The shuttles gave an unparalleled boost to the nation's space activities, making robot arms iconic and giving birth to an astronaut corps. The Canadian Space Agency has to adapt to the new reality that there will be fewer human flights.

"The International Space Station is the only game now," said Pierre Jean, the CSA director of space exploration operations.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield will head to the ISS for six months next year. But the next Canadian won't fly until at least 2018.

Otherwise, Canadian ISS activities will focus on building robotics expertise, which could be parlayed into future mission partnerships, for example on a Mars probe.

Former CSA executive Andrew Eddy, who heads the Athena Global consultancy, said Canada should take this opportunity to refocus on less publicized activities, such as earth-observation satellites, or finding more creative use of satellite data that could be used for anything from forestry inventory to tracking invasive species.

The CSA, he said, could even look at having its own launcher if it takes advantage of the latest technological advances. But with Ottawa tightening its belt, a Canadian-made rocket is not a priority, Mr. Jean said.

At least Canadians are going to the space station under a deal with NASA, where Canada gets 2.3 per cent of ISS time in return for the $1.4-billion it spent building the station's robot arms.

So it's been left to NASA to absorb the soaring Soyuz costs. At the start of the year, Russia charged the Americans $27-million (U.S.) for each Soyuz seat, but this will climb to $47-million next year and $60-million in 2015.

NASA officials have agreed with the Russian explanation that the hikes are caused by inflation and having to increase the number of Soyuz capsules. But former NASA engineer James Oberg, an authority on Russian space programs, think's it's price gouging.

"It bothers me that NASA people don't recognize all the bargaining chips on their side," he said, citing the leverage from having most of the space station's power coming from American-controlled solar panels.

Mr. Oberg has little patience for Americans who lament that their country is now a poor cousin of the space age. But relying solely on Soyuz breaks the cardinal rule of space travel to always have contingencies, so flying with Roscosmos requires vigilance, Mr. Oberg said.

Among Roscomos's weaknesses is a tendency toward secrecy when things go wrong, he warned, citing the way Russians obfuscated after two consecutive Soyuz missions landed off-target in 2007 and 2008.

In Russia, there is a feeling that the shuttle, with its frequent launch delays, was unreliable. "ISS operations should become more straightforward and manageable," said Igor Lissov, an analyst with Novosti Kosmonavtiki (News of Cosmonautics).

Still, only "anti-American activists" would see the end of the shuttle as a sign of decline, he said.

Instead, there are concerns that Roscosmos is chronically underfinanced and beset by technical problems.

The current boss, Vladimir Popovkin, got his job in April. His predecessor had been fired by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin after three navigation satellites crashed because of fuel miscalculation, in addition to a military satellite straying into the wrong orbit.

Roscosmos also has an aging work force whose expertise is not being replaced fast enough. "Salaries are quite small in comparison with the commercial sector and realities of life in Moscow. There are some young bright people in the space program driven by some kind of fanaticism, but not enough," Mr. Lissov said.

There is a fear that Russia relies too much on the Soyuz workhorse while the Americans have a chance to regroup and design new technology.

"So far Soyuz has served the needs of the Russian space program well," said Slava Gerovitch, a Russian-born space historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"One might expect the development of new Russian spacecraft and booster rockets only if Russia sets a new ambitious agenda of space exploration."

Follow on Twitter: @TuThanhHa

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories