April 11, 2009

US, Russian Astronauts Deny ‘Space Divorce’

American and Russian astronauts dismissed suggestions on Friday that new rules prevented them from sharing food and equipment onboard the International Space Station, and called their work the "best partnership" in history.

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov, U.S. astronaut Michael Fincke and American space tourist Charles Simonyi made their remarks to reporters two days after returning from the International Space Station (ISS).

"We are still working our partnership together, but please don't make a mistake," Fincke said during the crew's first news conference since their return.

"This is the best partnership that humans have ever had ... We're going to the stars together," he said in comments that were aired on Russian state media.

"We share things... The Americans definitely never said the Russians cannot use their toilet," Fincke added, switching seamlessly between English and Russian.

An interview by veteran cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, published after the Russian returned to the ISS last month, revealed remarkable tensions in the US-Russian space alliance.

An AFP report cited Padalka as telling the Novaya Gazeta newspaper that new no-sharing rules enacted on the station were damaging moral and causing tensions among the crew.

"I wish that professional politicians and bureaucrats on Earth would not meddle and impede our work," Novaya Gazeta quoted him as saying.

Padalka also said the two crews had separate toilets and that the Americans had been instructed not to permit the Russians to use their exercise machine onboard the ISS.

The Novaya Gazeta referred to it as "a divorce in space."

However, Russian flight engineer Yuri Lonchakov emphatically denied on Friday that each team operated separately onboard the space station, saying the crews enjoyed a "cosmic partnership."

"By no means can you now divide the United States and the Europeans, and say that everyone will work separately. Only with all our forces and all our success can the space station work," he said.

Space tourist Charles Simonyi, the first person to travel twice into space as a tourist, accompanied Lonchakov and Fincke back to Earth on the Russian Soyuz on Wednesday.

The Russian space agency Roskosmos said Simonyi, whose 10-day tour cost $35 million, could be their last space tourist as seats on the crowded Soyuz capsule will be filled with professional astronauts.

Next month the ISS full-time crew will grow from three to six, and U.S. astronauts will be forced to depend upon the Russian space agency for transport to the ISS after NASA retires its space shuttles next year.

Simonyi said the ISS was now ready to house a six-member permanent crew.

"It's a very big station. I'm not a specialist, but in my opinion it's ready for six people to live in," he said.

In addition to extra solar batteries, beds and exercise gear, a new toilet will also serve as a water purification system.

"With water we can do everything!" Fincke said, referring to equipment that allows astronauts to recycle urine into drinkable water.

Separately, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev vowed that Russia would not reduce funds to its space program, despite the current financial crisis.

"We will in any case earmark funds for the space sector," Medvedev said in remarks made during an award ceremony for two Russian cosmonauts.

"If we now -- even temporarily -- slow development, we will fall 10 years behind... I hope that our cosmonauts will always be at the forefront of the world."


Image Caption: Expedition 18 Flight Engineer Yury Lonchakov (left) and Commander Mike Fincke relax outside the Soyuz TMA-13 capsule after landing in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA TV 


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