September 01, 2011

The Little Soyuz that Could

Another chapter closed on human spaceflight and the Russian-American space race this summer when the U.S. retired its Project Constellation in July, ending the era of the Space Shuttle and handing Russia a de facto monopoly on carrying humans to the International Space Station.

Going forward, NASA will have to pay about $50 million to propel each astronaut to the Space Station, in launches conducted from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome. Instead of the reusable space shuttle, American astronauts will board Russia’s Soyuz rockets, which disintegrate in flight, leaving a tiny three-person capsule spacecraft that docks with the station. Although Russia’s space agency Roskosmos stresses that the system is constantly modified and improved, it is largely the same as the Vostok rocket that carried Yury Gagarin into orbit in April 1961.

NASA has already reserved some 50 seats for astronaut launches through 2016, by which time it hopes that the private sector will have developed a replacement for the Shuttle. But some observers have already expressed worry about Russia’s monopoly control over access to the ISS. European Space Agency head Jean-Jacques Dordain called the situation a “collective mistake,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

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