June 16, 2003
Volume 81, Number 24
CENEAR 81 24 p. 7
ISSN 0009-2347


As investigators look into shuttle accident, Russia fills void


Since the space shuttle Columbia accident on Feb. 1, human space flight has relied completely on the Russian Soyuz and Progress space vehicles. But some worry that Russia may not be able to continue to carry the program without financial assistance from the U.S.

TEAMWORK The Russian Soyuz spacecraft docks to a port on the International Space Station.
To address this concern, the House Science Subcommittee on Space held a hearing last week to explore the benefits and risks of U.S.-Russian cooperation on space programs and the Russian Space Agency's (RSA) long-term and short-term ability to support the International Space Station (ISS) with its space vehicles.

The hearing followed a joint pledge made by President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin for a continued commitment to complete the ISS, which is designed to be a world-class research facility. According to the statement, "the U.S. is committed to safely returning the space shuttle to flight, and the Russian Federation is committed to meeting the ISS crew transport and logistics resupply requirements."

Echoing those sentiments, John D. Schumacher, NASA assistant administer for external relations, told the subcommittee that RSA has "demonstrated a steadfast commitment to the ISS program by assuming increased responsibilities for operational support of ISS."

But it's the potential need for long-term Russian support that worries Congress. If Russian funding falls short before the shuttle is flying again, the Iran Nonproliferation Act prohibits the U.S. government from making payments to Russia until certain conditions are met.

Schumacher remains confident that Russia will be able to meet ISS needs but said that if problems arise, NASA would first ask the other ISS partners--Europe, Japan, and Canada--for support before going to Congress.

During the subcommittee hearing, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board was hard at work on its report on the factors that led to the Columbia disaster.

Earlier this month, investigators conducted foam impact tests to determine whether a piece of foam that broke off during takeoff and crashed into the shuttle's wing might have caused a catastrophic breach in the shuttle's left wing. Following an impact test on a fiberglass mock-up (C&EN, June 9, page 18), the test was repeated on the material used in the wing's leading edge: reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC). The results show significant damage to one of the RCC panels and the T-seal, which holds it in place.

As the investigation continues, the board held a hearing last week to discuss the history and management of the shuttle program. The board's final report is expected later this summer.


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