Since NASA’s last rendezvous with Russia’s orbiting Mir station, the relationship between the two space partners has turned rocky.
Mir is burned and broken, the future joint space station is grounded another year because of Russia’s lack of cash, and a Russian cosmonaut assigned to that station says he won’t work for an American.
All this as another NASA astronaut prepares to fly to Mir for a 4-1/2-month stay.
“One hates to get too far into the marriage analogy, but one might say the honeymoon is over and now they’re ready for a rough-and-tumble marriage,” said Marcia Smith, a specialist in space policy for the Congressional Research Service. “Now, maybe, both sides will see their partners as they are rather than as they wish they were.”
Space shuttle Atlantis lift offs Thursday with more than a ton of repair equipment and other supplies for Mir, which is long past its prime. The most critical payloads: a new oxygen generator and a replacement for Dr. Jerry Linenger, who has been living on Mir since January.
Alarmed by a February fire that almost forced Linenger and his crewmates to evacuate and the subsequent breakdowns of lifesupport gear, NASA managers spent weeks debating whether to send astronaut Michael Foale to Mir. They even considered launching Atlantis with an extra seat to bring Foale right back if necessary.
After intense discussions with their Russian counterparts and makeshift repairs in orbit, NASA managers decided earlier this month that the 11-year-old station was safe enough. Besides, they said, Foale can always escape in the attached Soyuz capsule.
While both sides admit Mir’s problems are good practice for the international space station - bumped from a late 1997 start to mid-1998 or later - the relationship hasn’t been easy and probably won’t be for many years.
“The two sides are in for continued strain on the international space station,” Smith said. “I mean, construction is at least until 2002, and if everything gets done they’ll be together until 2012. That’s a very long time to cooperate, and Russia still needs to come up with the rest of the money.”
NASA officials were annoyed, for instance, when their Russian counterparts waited until the next morning to notify them of the fire aboard Mir.
Then Russia announced construction of the international space station would be delayed several months because of funding problems. Six weeks later, an embarrassed NASA admitted that indeed would be the case.
And NASA obviously was not pleased when veteran Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev refused to be on the first crew of the international space station because the commander is going to be an American who has never led a mission.
The nationality of subsequent station commanders has yet to be resolved.
“It’s one of the fundamental problems that has to be solved, I think, as early as possible for political reasons and, besides, for the trip to Mars,” said European Space Agency astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy, one of Atlantis’ seven crew members.
“We could go to Mars today, technically. But if big countries like Russia and U.S. decide to do it together, you can’t wait until the last minute to decide who will be the first person to put their foot down.”
The whispered fear is that all this could be symptomatic of potentially fatal flaws in the U.S.-Russian partnership. It is, after all, a marriage of convenience.
NASA needed help clinching congressional support of the international space station and also needed a station - Mir - on which to practice. The Russian Space Agency needed help maintaining Mir and also needed an outpost - the international space station - for the next decade and beyond.
“Both sides, Russia and the United States, are accusing each other in the noncompliance of their agreement,” said Peter Gorin, a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. “There’s a tremendous opposition to the international space station in Russia, and this continues and this jeopardizes the current space project.”
NASA’s six-time space flier Story Musgrave said: “It is not serving space the way we are cooperating. We should have an independent space station with an awful lot of cooperation. Not partnership.”
He added: “Space should not be politics-driven.”