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As space work goes on, Russia key

With shuttle fleet grounded, NASA may need Russia to keep the space station aloft.

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Derided for pasting a Pizza Hut logo on its rockets and catering to wealthy "space tourists," Russia could now find itself flying to the rescue.

Can Soviet-era spacecraft substitute for the shuttle in supporting humanity's grandest science project: the International Space Station (ISS)?

The answer appears to be yes, if the US helps out with cash - a lot of it. Russia's financially strapped space agency is now taking stock of its capabilities.

"We can support the human side of the ISS program, and ensure adequate supplies are brought to the crew," says Georgi Gretchko, a former cosmonaut and space official.

Russia has budgeted for two manned Soyuz launches in 2003 plus three Progress supply flights to the ISS. Those vehicles are almost ready, and one Soyuz could be sent up as early as April - perhaps unmanned, in order to save space and fuel. "Russian ships were always more cost-effective than the shuttle, and with the proper financing we should be able to at least keep the station functioning," Mr. Gretchko says.

"If the ISS project is to continue, it obviously means that Russia must take first place in running the program, at least temporarily," says Sergei Kazyonnov, an expert at the Institute of National Security and Strategic Studies in Moscow. "There is proven technology, and enough skilled people, but the Russian space program is bankrupt. It comes down to money."

The Russian Space Agency's budget, $265 million last year, is dwarfed by NASA's $15.5 billion annual allocation.

Since ditching its own independent orbiter, the Mir, two years ago, Russia's Space Agency has focused more than half its meager resources on meeting its modest ISS obligations, which include the two annual manned visits to the station by Soyuz spacecraft and three by Progress robot supply ships.


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