Tensions Brew In U.S.-Russian Space Partnership The international space station was conceived as a technological showcase of what countries can do when they work together. But recent disputes between NASA and the Russian space agency have revealed problems in the relationship, just as the U.S. prepares to retire its space shuttle fleet and rely on the Russians' Soyuz rocket.
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Tensions Brew In U.S.-Russian Space Partnership

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Tensions Brew In U.S.-Russian Space Partnership

Tensions Brew In U.S.-Russian Space Partnership

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, when quads head to college. But first, the International Space Station was conceived as a high-tech showcase of global cooperation. But lately arguments between Russia's space agency and NASA have been mirroring Moscow's troubled relations with the West. NPR's Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER: A fire alarm sounds on the International Space Station. This is part of a drill, not in space but on an exact copy of the Russian segment of the space station. It's located inside a massive hangar-like building outside Moscow in a town called Star City. A secret settlement during the Cold War, it's where cosmonauts train to fly into space.

Mr. SERGEI MARSHENKO(ph) (Engineer): (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: Amid panels of electronics, wires and pipes inside the very cramped space station module, engineer Sergei Marshenko says the simulation done here is crucial to ensure the space station functions properly.

Since the 1990s, when Cold War differences appeared to be history, astronauts from the United States and other countries have also trained at this aging Soviet complex, set amid a sprawling pine and birch forest.

(Soundbite of beeping)

FEIFER: In another building, a U.S. astronaut and a cosmonaut in space suits sit crammed inside a Soviet era Soyuz space capsule. They press buttons during flight training.

Unidentified Man: (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: After the U.S. space shuttle program is retired next year, the space station will rely on the 40-year-old Soyuz program alone for transportation, until the next generation of U.S. spacecraft is built. But there are signs of tension among space agencies.

Earlier this month, the International Space Station's current commander, Gennady Padalka, told a newspaper just before blasting off that squabbles over equipment and supplies are harming work on the space station. He said Russia started charging other astronauts for using Russian facilities in 2003. Now the Russians eat their own food and the other astronauts eat theirs and, he says, use separate toilets.

The Russian space program's Marina Driga blames NASA.

Ms. MARINA DRIGA: (Through translator) 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.

FEIFER: But U.S. astronaut Michael Fincke denies there are any problems in space.

Mr. MICHAEL FINCKE (Astronaut): Once we're onboard, there's no politics.

FEIFER: Fincke spoke at Star City earlier this month after having returned from a six-month stint as the space station's commander.

Mr. FINCKE: The Americans definitely never said that the Russians could never use our toilets - that's unfounded - and the Americans, of course, could use the Russian toilet always. So that's not a problem.

FEIFER: But Fincke did admit Russians have been barred from using American exercise equipment, and that differences on Earth need sorting out.

There has been public friction between NASA and the cash-strapped Russian space program in the past over the Russians' practice of taking private travelers paying tens of millions of dollars to the space station. Space program expert Vladimir Gubarev, the Soviet spokesman for the joint U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz mission of the 1970s, agrees there are problems.

Mr. VLADIMIR GUBAREV (Space Program Expert): (Through translator) 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.

FEIFER: Gubarev says problems are exacerbated by the International Space Station's fundamental problems. He says it's too large and is not producing enough scientific knowledge or technological advances to justify the tens of billions being spent on it.

Mr. GUBAREV: (Through translator) 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.

FEIFER: Gubarev reserves special criticism for the Russian space program. Instead of developing new technology, he says, the Russians are mainly interested in squeezing out as much money as possible from seriously outdated technology. He says that will leave the Russian space program at a great disadvantage in the future.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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