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Russians Declare Need for Funding To Keep Space Station Operational

By Sharon LaFraniere
THE WASHINGTON POST -- Russian space officials are warning that the International Space Station will have to be mothballed unless the United States or another partner in the huge project comes up with $100 million to pay for more Russian spacecraft to supply a skeleton crew on the station.

Alexei Krasnov, deputy head of international cooperation for the Russian space agency, Rosaviakosmos, said in an interview that Russia alone has been called on to keep the football field-sized station supplied after NASA grounded its three remaining shuttles last month. But “no one has come up with a suggestion on how to procure the funds” for extra supply ships required, he said.

Russia’s assessment contrasted with a more positive picture that NASA officials have been painting of the space station’s future following last month’s loss of the shuttle Columbia.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe told a congressional panel two weeks ago that the 16-nation coalition that backs the space station has agreed that Russia will provide two more unmanned Progress cargo spacecraft to ferry water, fuel and necessities to the station for the next 18 months. That would enable a reduced crew of two to maintain the station in orbit while NASA investigates the Columbia accident, which killed seven astronauts, he said.

But Krasnov said in an interview that the financing for the additional Russian supply ships, which cost about $50 million each, including booster rockets, is nowhere in sight. Time is fast running out, he said, if Russia is to complete a Progress to keep the station supplied this year and begin work on another to fly next year. It takes a minimum of 18 months to build the craft, he said.

“We need to start now,” said Krasnov. “We are under terrific time pressure.”

A NASA spokesman said today he could not immediately comment on Krasnov’s remarks.

With an annual budget for space of $270 million, Russia is struggling to fulfill even its current responsibilities with the space station. Even as it devotes half of that money to the international project, the Russian agency can little more than serve as its coachman, ferrying crews and supplies to and from Earth, the agency’s director, Yuri Koptev said in December.

Because of the new pressure on resources that followed the loss of Columbia, Russia has cancelled commercial and space tourist flights that would have brought in $31 million this year, according to Krasnov. Not a ruble is left for extra supply flights, he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin refused last month to give the agency more funds to service the space station, saying the agency should seek financial contributions from the 15 other partners in the project, he said.