Despite a high-profile recent failure, NASA officials are expressing confidence that the Russian space program is capable of ferrying supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station and remain optimistic that there will be no future problems.
But officials of the U.S. space agency acknowledged at a House hearing Wednesday that, while they've been briefed on the failed August launch and have traveled to Russia for meetings with their Russian counterparts, NASA can do little but monitor the situation.
"Ultimately, the Russians are the experts in this area. It's their engine, it's their design," said William H. Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
"We have to rely on the Russians' basic analysis" of what went wrong with the misfire of the Soyuz spacecraft that failed to reach orbit, he said.
Since the Russian Soyuz spacecraft loaded with nearly three tons of supplies and bound for the International Space Station (ISS) crashed in Siberia two months ago, American officials said they have been given frequent updates on the investigation into the crash.
Following the end of the American space shuttle program in July, Russian-made ships are the only mode of transportation from Earth to the ISS until U.S. private companies take over some of those efforts. NASA hopes to turn over cargo missions to private carriers within a year or two, but manned missions are at least five years away, leaving the Russian space agency Roskosmos as the only viable option.
Since the accident, Soyuz missions have been put on hold and ongoing Russian inquiries point to a malfunction in an engine gas generator as the cause of the crash. Russia did stage the successful launch earlier this month of a satellite as part of its global-positioning system.
Since the August crash, Mr. Gerstenmaier said Russia has returned some of their spacecraft engines to factories for further testing. Officials in both countries want to see two successful supply missions before putting humans back on board.
Earlier this year, NASA agreed to pay Russia $753 million for 12 round trips to the ISS, - about $63 million per seat for American astronauts. While that's higher than previous rates due to Russian inflation and other increased costs, some in Congress say they have been pleasantly surprised that Russia has chosen not to use its monopoly position to overcharge the U.S. space program for space on the Soyuz rockets.
Russia "could've raised the rates on us, if they wanted to play hardball," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican and member of the House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee on space and aeronautics, which held Wednesday's hearing.
Despite being the only option for ISS missions, the Russian space agency Roskosmos isn't happy with its current role. In an address to parliament earlier this month, Roskosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin said that he fears his country could fall behind other nations by focusing all of its time, money and energy on old technology.
"I honestly do not think it should be seen as a major achievement for us that we are the only ones fully supporting the International Space Station. We are forced to focus on the production of well-reputed but comparatively old spacecrafts," he said.
Russia now handles about 40 percent of the world's space launches each year, but holds only 3 percent of the $267-billion space industry market, according to Reuters. Much of that money is tied up in the next generation of space flight.
The U.S., for example, has begun to look beyond lower Earth orbit to Mars missions and other deep-space exploration.
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