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Russians: 'It's our space age now'

NASA file

A Russian Soyuz craft leaves the International Space Station with three crew members in November 2010.

Russian space officials are hailing the end of the space shuttle era as the beginning of the "Soyuz epoch." For at least the next few years, Russian Soyuz craft will serve as the only way to get back and forth from the International Space Station, and NASA will be paying up to $63 million a seat for the ride.

Russian cosmonauts will also make up half of the space station's crews from here on out, even though NASA has paid most of the estimated $100 billion cost of construction.


The Soyuz epoch was heralded on Thursday by the Russian Federal Space Agency in a news release that also paid tribute to the shuttle era. The Russian-language report says that the shuttle fleet's retirement marks a "new stage in the International Space Station program, in which the Russian Soyuz spaceships have no backups."

The Russian space agency said it would be 2016 at the earliest before any other crew-capable spaceships are available for trips to the International Space Station. That's roughly what NASA is saying as well: Its current timetable calls for commercial space taxis such as the SpaceX Dragon, the Boeing CST-100, the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser or Blue Origin's orbital space vehicle to be ready for use sometime in the middle of the decade. 

Here's the way the Russians see the road ahead:

"For a 30-year period, the shuttles ensured not only access into space for humans, but also delivery into orbit of the large-scale payloads without which the building of the International Space Station would hardly have been possible. Humanity is indebted to the American ships for their role in the mastery of space.

"But really, why are the comfortable and beautiful 'birds' departing, while the 'old' Russian Soyuz spacecraft, as they are called by foreign media, are remaining?

"The answer is simple: reliability, to say nothing of profitability.

"The term 'old' has nothing in common with the reality. Soyuzes are constantly being modernized. Over the next year, newly modified ships equipped with digital systems will fly. The second Soyuz in the TMA-M series is currently undergoing flight design tests.

"Furthermore, even if there's an alternative to Russia's manned Soyuz spaceships in the next few years, it will take a lot of time to prove that the new ship will provide sufficient safety for human spaceflight.

"In the world of human spaceflight, today marks the beginning of the Soyuz epoch — the epoch of reliability."

NBC News space analyst James Oberg pointed out the announcement in an email. "Didn't take them long to start crowing, did it?" he wrote. "What happens next, I wonder?"

The space station crew composition already reflects an arrangement that ensures the Russians will never be outnumbered in orbit. The agreement for the 16-nation project calls for three crew members on each six-person expedition to come from the Russian space effort, with the other three representing the U.S. On-Orbit Segment, or USOS. That's shorthand for NASA plus the other partners, such as Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency. The current crew for Expedition 28, for example, includes three Russians, two Americans and a Japanese astronaut.

Until the commercial space taxis are ready, astronauts will have to fly to the station and back aboard the Soyuz craft, which are exempt from NASA's human-rating requirements. The current fare comes out to $48 million per seat, but NASA's agreements with the Russians call for that figure to rise to $51 million next year, $55.8 million for 2013-2014, and $62.7 million for 2014-2015.

'Full service' from Russia
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has pointed out repeatedly that the fare includes not only the ride itself, but also the required training at Russia's Star City cosmonaut complex. "It's not like a bus ticket or an airplane ticket," The Huntsville Times recently quoted Bolden as saying. "You used to be able to go into a gas station and get full service. ... We get full service from the Russians, old-time full service."

The way it works is that a Soyuz is sent up from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with a crew of three. That craft serves as the emergency lifeboat for the crew members until their six-month tour of duty is over and it's time to return to Earth. Then the Soyuz provides the ride home ... well, at least home to the Kazakh steppes and on to Moscow. The crew rotations are staggered by roughly three months, so one three-person Soyuz crew overlaps with another during the course of a 6-month-long expedition. Because the shuttles will no longer fly to the station, the crew count will vary between three and six, far less than the 13 who were on board during peak times in the shuttle era.

It's true that launching a Soyuz is considerably cheaper than launching a shuttle (which came out to $1 billion to $1.5 billion per mission). But the shuttle had much higher payload-carrying capability — up to 25 tons in the cargo bay. In comparison, the cargo capacity is 2.5 tons for Russia's unmanned Progress ship, 6 tons for Japan's HTV cargo carrier, 8 tons for Europe's expendable ATV, and 6 tons for SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsule.

When it comes to flying astronauts, NASA is counting on the commercial taxis to outdo the Russians. "We believe we can come in at less than the cost to the Russians," one of the would-be taxi operators, Sierra Nevada's Mark Sirangelo, told me earlier this month. "We think substantially less."

And because the taxis are simpler than the shuttle, NASA expects them to improve on the shuttle fleet's safety record. Will they be better than the Soyuz? Oberg thinks the Soyuzes may be riskier than the Russians let on, but what do you think? Feel free to chime in with your comments below.

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