Tensions Brew In U.S.-Russian Space Partnership

Training at Star City, near Moscow. i i

Russian cosmonauts and U.S. astronauts train for missions at the Star City complex, near Moscow. A replica of the international space station in a giant water tank allows the astronauts, assisted by divers, to experience the sensation of weightlessness while simulating a spacewalk. Maxim Marmur/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Maxim Marmur/AFP/Getty Images
Training at Star City, near Moscow.

Russian cosmonauts and U.S. astronauts train for missions at the Star City complex, near Moscow. A replica of the international space station in a giant water tank allows the astronauts, assisted by divers, to experience the sensation of weightlessness while simulating a spacewalk.

Maxim Marmur/AFP/Getty Images
A Russian Soyuz rocket blasts off. i i

A Soyuz spacecraft blasts off on a 2008 mission to the international space station from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images
A Russian Soyuz rocket blasts off.

A Soyuz spacecraft blasts off on a 2008 mission to the international space station from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. astronaut Michael Fincke i i

U.S. astronaut Michael Fincke speaks on a satellite phone shortly after returning to Earth aboard a Soyuz capsule on April 8 following a mission aboard the international space station. Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. astronaut Michael Fincke

U.S. astronaut Michael Fincke speaks on a satellite phone shortly after returning to Earth aboard a Soyuz capsule on April 8 following a mission aboard the international space station.

Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty Images

In the near future, the fate of America's manned space program rests, in part, at a massive, hangarlike building outside Moscow.

At the Star City complex — the Russian equivalent of NASA's Houston command center — cosmonauts, astronauts and scientists from other countries train to work cooperatively in the international space station program.

After the U.S. space shuttle program is retired, scheduled to happen next year, the space station will rely solely on Russia's Soyuz launch vehicle for transportation until the next generation of U.S. spacecraft is built.

Signs Of Tension

But there are signs of tension among the U.S. and Russian space agencies, mirroring tensions in the broader Russian relationship with the West.

Just before he blasted off earlier this month, the space station's current commander, Gennady Padalka, told a newspaper that squabbles over equipment and supplies are harming work on the station.

He said the Russian government started charging other astronauts for using Russian facilities in 2003. Now the Russians eat their own food and the other astronauts eat theirs and use separate toilets, Padalka said.

Russian space program spokeswoman Marina Driga blames NASA.

"It was NASA that started prohibiting Russian cosmonauts from going onto American sections and banned others from eating their food. Before they all used to eat together like one happy family," Driga said.

Problems On The Ground

U.S. astronaut Michael Fincke denies there are problems in space but concedes that there are some differences that officials on the ground need to resolve.

"Once we're onboard, there's no politics," Finke said earlier this month after returning from a six-month stint as the space station's commander.

Fincke conceded that Russians have been barred from using American exercise equipment.

"The Americans definitely never said that the Russians could never use our toilet, that's unfounded. And the Americans, of course, can use the Russian toilet — always — so that's not a problem," he added.

U.S.-Russian Differences

Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, cooperation in space has expanded. But there has been public friction between NASA and the cash-strapped Russian space program in the past, chiefly over the Russians' practice of taking on private customers — travelers willing to pay tens of millions of dollars to spend time at the space station.

The international space station was conceived as a technological showcase of what countries can do when they work together. Orbital construction began in 1998, and the station is scheduled to continue operating until 2015 or beyond.

"The American and Russian space programs do things differently, they have different cultures, and it's a mistake to believe you can create one joint station in space successfully," said Vladimir Gubarev, a space expert who was the Soviet spokesman for the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.

Looking Forward

Gubarev says problems are exacerbated by the international space station's fundamental problems. He says it's too complex and is not producing enough scientific knowledge or technological advances to justify the tens of billions of dollars being spent on it.

"New components are being built, but no one can say exactly for what purpose. The international space station symbolizes the fact that manned space exploration is currently at a dead end," Gubarev says.

NASA's next generation Constellation program calls for a new launch vehicle to be ready by 2014 with the goal of returning to the moon no later than 2020.

Until then, transportation to and from the space station will rely on the Russian Soyuz vehicle.

Gubarev directs much of his criticism at Russia, which he says is mainly interested in squeezing as much money as possible from outdated technology. The Soyuz launch vehicle is a 40-year-old design. He says that will leave the Russian space program at a great disadvantage in the future.

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