July 27, 2005

Russia Relieved at U.S. Shuttle Return to Space

MOSCOW -- Russia welcomed Wednesday the return of the U.S. shuttle to space, saying it would bring financial relief to Moscow after a lone, two-year fight to keep humans in orbit.

"We regard this extremely positively," Konstantin Kredenko, spokesman of the Roskosmos space agency, said after the shuttle Discovery blasted off from Cape Canaveral.

Since the shuttles were grounded in February 2003 after one disintegrated on re-entry, killing seven astronauts, only Russia has sent people and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) from its Baikonur cosmodrome in neighboring Kazakhstan.

NASA's launch of the Discovery Tuesday marked a triumphant U.S. return to manned space travel after a long struggle to recover from Columbia's breakup over Texas.

The $95-billion space station is funded by 16 nations and opened to long-stay crews in 2000. When NASA grounded its fleet, building of the orbiting laboratory was stalled because shuttles were the only vehicles that could transport the necessary parts.

Russia continued to send up Soyuz capsules to put two-man Russian-U.S. crews on the ISS for six-month stints and regularly launched Progress cargo ships to supply the astronauts with food, fuel and water.

But the cost of these missions, which keep the station ticking over in the shuttles' absence, have eaten into a space budget that Russia says is a mere fraction of NASA's.

"If the shuttle flight turns out to be successful, it will be possible to talk about normal construction work on the ISS again," Kredenko said.

"For the past two years, we have only been able to support the station and occasionally carry out a few experiments there.

"We are hoping now that things can improve from this year," he said.

Russia and the United States are the only two countries technically able to send ships to the station, but the burden will be spread more widely from next year when the European Space Agency is scheduled to launch its first cargo craft.

"While ever the whole load fell on the Russian side ... we were forced to limit crews on the station to two people. Our plans foresee crews of six people with not only Russian and American astronauts, but also European and, possibly, Japanese ones," Kredenko said. (Reporting by Tanya Mosolova)