Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Astronaut Bill McArthur has been wondering about his return ticket for his next spaceflight, but he isn’t worried as he prepares for his mission to the International Space Station.

“I have a lot of confidence that once I get on orbit, [NASA’s] going to get me home when I need to get back,” he said.

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft is scheduled to launch Saturday with Col. McArthur, Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev and space tourist Greg Olsen.

Mr. Olsen will remain in space for about a week and return to Earth with the current space station crew of Russian Sergei Krikalev and American John Phillips. Col. McArthur and Mr. Tokarev are scheduled to remain in space until April.

The problem is that the U.S. doesn’t have a seat on the Soyuz that will be returning with Mr. Tokarev because of politics and international negotiations. The mission to take Col. McArthur to the International Space Station and return Mr. Phillips fulfills the Russian’s obligation to transport U.S. astronauts.

Under an agreement for the International Space Station, Russia is responsible for the living quarters, oxygen-generating equipment, carbon dioxide and humidity removers, limited communications and thrusters.

The U.S. provides giant solar arrays, a large laboratory, backup carbon-dioxide removal systems, emergency oxygen supplies, broadband worldwide communications and the capability to return large amounts of cargo via the shuttle.

Both sides launch cargo, including water and food.

Russia agreed to provide 11 three-person Soyuz spacecrafts, each capable of staying six months in space.

Both the Soyuz and the space shuttle can launch and return long-duration crews. The Soyuz serves as the sole “lifeboat” for the crews in the absence of the shuttle. Each party is allocated a percentage of space for experiments and other resources, which can be bartered.

It was understood that after the 11 Soyuz flights covered by the agreement, Russia would continue to use Soyuzes and NASA would have its own space-station lifeboat. The crew size could be increased, and more science could be performed.

Since the first space station Soyuz was launched on Oct. 31, 2000, all of the parties have been aware that the Russian commitment would be completed with the flight that will return Mr. Phillips.

U.S. crew-return vehicles were studied, but ultimately canceled to pay for space station cost overruns.

NASA had hoped to purchase additional hardware and services from Russia, but the 2000 Iran Nonproliferation Act prevents the space agency from purchasing any more Russian space hardware unless the president certifies that Russia is not selling nuclear technology to Iran.

The good news for Col. McArthur and NASA is that Congress may budge. On Sept. 15, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, introduced a bill to provide temporary relief from the Iran restrictions. If the House agrees, NASA will be able to purchase additional space on the Soyuzes.

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