The Russia Journal
2 Feb 2003
MOSCOW – Russia launched an unmanned cargo ship on a flight to the international space station Sunday, a day after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia threw future missions to the orbiting complex in doubt.
The Progress M-47 lifted off atop a Soyuz-U rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:59 p.m. Moscow time (1259 GMT) and successfully entered orbit a few minutes later, said Nikolai Kryuchkov, a spokesman at Russia’s mission control center outside Moscow. The craft is scheduled to dock with the station Tuesday, delivering fuel, equipment and food and mail for the crew.
The long-planned launch came as stunned Russian space officials offered condolences to their American colleagues and said the disaster may put Moscow’s cash-strapped space program under more pressure to deliver crews and supplies to the station.
“Cosmonauts and astronauts are one big family, and I personally – and I believe all my colleagues – are suffering this like a personal loss,” cosmonaut Yuri Usachev, who commanded the space station’s second crew in 2001, said on TVS television.
“I believe yesterday’s tragedy will have a big influence on the future of the international space station,” he said, adding, “Probably for a certain amount of time the accent will shift to Russian systems of delivery of cargo and crews.”
NASA plans had called for expanding the space station during five shuttle flights this year, but space shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said Saturday that flights would be put on hold until officials determine what caused the Columbia to break up.
A spokesman for Russian space agency Rosaviakosmos, Sergei Gorbunov, said that during the investigation, “work in orbit will be carried out in a truncated regime,” the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
Crews “can conduct various scientific experiments, but you can forget about further construction on the station until the resumption of American shuttle launches,” Gorbunov said.
Russian space officials have said they are ready to pick up some of the slack in the meantime with their own spacecraft, including manned Soyuz TMA capsules, but that more would need to be built and funds are scarce.
“There is no reserve of Soyuz spacecraft at the moment,” the Interfax news agency quoted Gorbunov as saying. He aid that if NASA plans to use Russian craft for manned missions to the space station, “it will have to buy Russian Soyuz TMAs” and that new craft would take two years to build.
Russia builds two of the spacecraft per year, he said, but if shuttles are grounded, “More spacecraft might be needed to maintain the crew and transport cargo,” Gorbunov said. According to TVS and ITAR-Tass, Russia now has two Soyuz craft – which, unlike the shuttles, cannot be used more than once.
Russia normally sends a Soyuz up to the station twice a year as a fresh escape capsule, with its Russian-led crew making a short visit and returning to Earth in the old craft.
Gorbunov said Sunday that the next such mission, planned for April, might be sent up unmanned to avoid depleting the food supply for the permanent crew, Interfax reported.
Shuttles can carry payloads of 100 metric tons (110 short tons), while Russian Progress supply ships like the one set to launch Sunday can carry no more than 5 metric tons (5.5 short tons), Interfax reported.
After dumping its Mir space station in 2001, the Russian space program has concentrated its meager resources on the 16-nation international space station, a U.S.-led project. Russia has earned money by taking paying “space tourists” to the station.
Russian Foreign Minster Igor Ivanov called U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday to express condolences, the Foreign Ministry said Sunday. Outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, a few Russians placed brightly colored flowers on a snowbank Sunday morning.
Also Saturday, President Vladimir Putin called U.S. President George W. Bush and sent a telegram to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.