Russians welcome Discovery’s launch

by Chris Bergin

The Russian Space Agency has welcomed Wednesday the return of the Space Shuttle fleet to space, saying it would bring financial relief to Moscow after a lone, two-year fight to keep humans in orbit on the International Space Station (ISS).

“We regard this extremely positively,” Konstantin Kredenko, spokesman of the Roskosmos space agency, said after the shuttle Discovery blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Since the shuttles were grounded in February 2003 after Columbia disintegrated on re-entry during STS-107, killing seven astronauts, Russia has been the only country with the ability to send astronauts and cargo to the ISS from its Baikonur cosmodrome in neighbouring Kazakhstan.

Discovery’s crew are currently using the Orbiter Boom Sensor System to examine the nose cap and two leading edges of Discovery’s wings. There was some issues with debris during yesterday’s launch, although that isn’t believed to be deemed a problem given the usual debris that occurs during launches. Confirmation of Discovery’s condition will come in a few days when the vast amount of video has been examined by experts on the ground.

Discovery is on track to meet with the ISS tomorrow.

The $95-billion space station is funded by 16 nations and opened to long-stay crews in 2000. When NASA grounded its fleet, building of the orbiting laboratory was stalled because shuttles were the only vehicles that could transport the necessary parts.

Russia continued to send up Soyuz capsules to put two-man Russian-U.S. crews on the ISS for six-month stints and regularly launched Progress cargo ships to supply the astronauts with food, fuel and water.

But the cost of these missions, which keep the station ticking over in the shuttles’ absence, have eaten into a space budget that Russia says is a mere fraction of NASA’s.

“If the shuttle flight turns out to be successful, it will be possible to talk about normal construction work on the ISS again,” Kredenko said.

“For the past two years, we have only been able to support the station and occasionally carry out a few experiments there.

“We are hoping now that things can improve from this year,” he said, although NASA has plans to reduce the current 28 launch mandate for the Shuttle fleet – prior to retirement.

Russia and the United States are the only two countries technically able to send ships to the station, but the burden will be spread more widely from next year when the European Space Agency is scheduled to launch its first cargo craft.

“While ever the whole load fell on the Russian side … we were forced to limit crews on the station to two people. Our plans foresee crews of six people with not only Russian and American astronauts, but also European and, possibly, Japanese ones,” Kredenko said.

Related Articles