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MOSCOW, July 21 (RIA Novosti political analyst Andrei Kislyakov). Yuri Koptev, head of the Russian space agency Rosaviakosmos, recently said that American shuttle flights were unlikely to resume before the middle of 2004, at the earliest.

This means that Russia will be solely responsible for maintaining crews on the International Space Station (ISS).

These words sound more realistic than the NASA plans to resume shuttle services in October 2003. At the end of June, NASA chief Sean O'Keefe frankly admitted in a New York Times interview that in line with the conclusions of an independent Congress commission on the causes of the Columbia disaster, almost another year would be needed to examine all the accident materials and decide on the further possible use of the shuttles. But, according to him, the station needs flights to be resumed in October.

It seems two factors prompted O'Keefe to make this statement. First, the Americans, so far at least, do not want the Russians to broaden their role in the ISS programme. But this will be inevitable, if the shuttles stay grounded for any length of time. Confirmation of this is NASA's reluctance to use a new Russian multi-functional cargo module specially tailored for the delivery of heavy payloads to the station. Second, NASA is well and truly concerned about Russia's ability to foot the bill alone, sending relief crews to orbit and getting cosmonauts back to Earth. Will the hard-pressed Russian space programme have enough manned Soyuz and automatic Progress cargo craft to take care of the task.

While the first consideration may be left on NASA's conscience, the second, which makes the Americans worry, is groundless.

As early as the spring of 2003, Russia's Finance Ministry, in line with a government decision, carried over 1,300 million roubles from the third and fourth quarters to the second quarter of 2003 for launching spaceships to the ISS. Moreover, the 2004 budget increased financing for the ISS programme. These measures made it possible not only to put a seventh expedition into orbit at the end of April, but also to provide the station with full routine maintenance.

Currently, according to Rosaviakosmos, the Russian space rocket corporation Energiya is assembling three additional Progress spacecraft, one to be launched with cargo bound for the station this year, and the others in 2004.

As for manned Soyuz-series craft, the Rosaviakosmos plans for them remain the same. As agreed with NASA, these craft will deliver international crews to the station each half-year and return cosmonauts to Earth.

The eighth long-term expedition, which will blast off for the ISS on October 18, is being prepared strictly to schedule. On July 21, a new station crew of Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri, US astronaut Michael Foale and also Spain's Pedro Duque, an astronaut of the European Space Agency, will start training hard at the cosmonaut training centre outside Moscow. The latter is planning only a short visit to the station.

With regard to the problem of the American spacecraft, it is necessary to point out that the central issue now is not when the next shuttle will fly, but if it is reliable as a space transport system. It was no coincidence that the commission, after failing to find the causes of the accident, demanded that NASA should from now on consider shuttles as experimental vehicles, believing (and not without reason) that the high failure rate is inherent in the shuttles themselves.

In any case, it is already obvious that the existing shuttle fleet cannot be used for a further 20 years as NASA specialists had predicted, even with thorough modernising, which is financially burdensome and may take years.

This means that NASA is now confronted with the problem of replacing its shuttles ahead of the target date. There are a multitude of ideas as to how to do this. The agency is accelerating the development of an orbital plane as an intermediate stop-gap which, according to designers, will replenish the existing shuttle fleet and keep it afloat until the next generation is available.

But even the most optimistic forecasts set the ultimate date at 2010. Time will show how the remaining three shuttles will fare until then.

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