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Russia

With America’s Shuttle Now Grounded, Russia Looks To Edge Ahead In Global Space Race

The end of the U.S. space shuttle program could be just what the doctor ordered for NASA’s old rival, the Russian Federal Space Agency, whose Soyuz rockets are now the only show in town when it comes to sending humans into the great beyond.

Near Russia's Baikonur cosmodromel, children examine an image of space pioneer Yuri Gargarin
Near Russia's Baikonur cosmodromel, children examine an image of space pioneer Yuri Gargarin
Benjamin Quenelle

BAIKONUR -- At the old Baikonur cosmodrome, the site of so many glorious moments for the Soviet space program, a Russian engineer proudly points to the Soyuz rocket just about to leave the ground. This will be a world record 1,774th launch for the brand of Russian-made rockets. It is the 23rd time the legendary engine wears the Arianespace logo.

Onboard the vessel are a number of communication satellites owned by the U.S. company Globalstar. "The United States needs us now, just like Europe does," the engineer insists. It is, of course, a reference to the recent "retirement" of America's space shuttle program. The final space shuttle voyage is set to conclude this week, meaning that for now, Russia's Soyuz rocket is the only machine available to transport humans to the International Space Station (ISS).

The commercial space transportation company operating many of those launches, Arianespace, just celebrated the 15th anniversary of its partnership with the European-Russian company Starsem. In the future, Arianespace plans to launch its Soyuz rockets not from Baikonur – located in the middle of the steppe in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan – but from a new facility in Guyana. The first Guyana launch will take place on Oct. 20, two years behind schedule.

"Increasing the number of flights transporting American astronauts may be a serious issue for Arianespace," says one of the company's French employees. "The risk is that there could be tensions over who and what comes first. The Russians can produce nearly as many Suyoz rockets as they want. But will there be enough technical staff to cover all the flights both from Baikonur and Guyana? The Russians will give priority to government flights, then to the Space Station missions, and finally to us."

Shooting for the stars

The Soyuz got its start a half-century ago, propelling famed Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin on his landmark voyage into outer space. Later Soyuz rockers launched countless European satellites. Now, the future of the formidable and reliable rocket – the workhorse of the space transportation world – is in the hands of Vladimir Popovkin, the new general director of the Russian Federal Space Agency.

In Baikonur, from which the Russian Proton rocket is also launched, Popovkin inspires fear. "The Russians talk about him all the time, and about his wish to fire half of the employees. They are terrified," says a French worker in Baikonur.

Popovkin was appointed to revitalize an industry that recently suffered severe blows. Most notable has been the failure of Russia to properly maintain its GLONASS global positioning system. GLONASS was designed to compete with the American GPS system and with Europe's planned Galileo program.

The new Russian Space chief is hoping to significantly increase Russia's market share in the international trade of space equipment. For now, Russia takes part in 40% of the world's space launches and produces roughly 20% of all space ships. In addition, Popovkin plans to build a new cosmodrome in far eastern Russia. The new space station will replace the venerable Baikonur facility, the world's first and still largest launch facility.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Vivaiquique

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