With America's shuttle programme winding down, Soyuz will be the world's only lifeline to the International Space Station — at least till 2016.

On July 21, when Atlantis touched down for the last time in Cape Canaveral, Moscow declared that the winding down of the U.S. shuttle programme “opens the era of the Soyuz.” The Russian agency, Roskosmos, said the venerable spacecraft, Soyuz, would now be the world's only lifeline to the International Space Station (ISS) — at least till 2016.

“Today's landing of the U.S. Atlantis is doubtless one of the most significant milestones in the history of space exploration,” Roskosmos stated with barely concealed pride in the triumph of the hardy but single-use Soyuz over sophisticated, reusable but exorbitant U.S. space shuttles.

When the U.S. embarked on designing a space shuttle in the late 1960s, it was widely believed that reusable space vehicles would win hands down over expendable ships by drastically cutting down the cost of spaceflight. However, the result turned out to be exactly the opposite. The cost of the 30-year space shuttle programme was more than $1 billion per launch, roughly equivalent to the cost of launching 20 Soyuz spacecraft.

The U.S. will save a lot of money by switching over to the Russian space vehicle. NASA contracts with Roskosmos for ferrying 18 U.S. astronauts to the ISS and back aboard Soyuz ships over the next five years (plus 24-month training for each astronaut, room and board, flight operations and crew rescue) will cost the U.S. only as much as a single shuttle flight.

A big advantage of the U.S. shuttles, of course, was their freight capacity. A shuttle could take to space almost 30 tonnes of cargo, 10 times more than Soyuz, and bring down to earth two tonnes of payload, compared with just 50 kg by Soyuz. Roskosmos acknowledged the critical role of U.S. shuttles in setting up the ISS by placing bulky sections in orbit. Why then, Roskosmos asked, are the sleek U.S. “birds” gone, while the old Soyuz craft are still in business?

The answer, Roskosmos itself said, was simple: the Soyuz was more reliable and cost-effective. The spacecraft had an impeccable safety record: not a fatal accident over the past 40 years. The two Soyuz accidents involving fatalities date back to the early stages of the programme. The Soyuz-1 descent capsule crashed to earth in 1967, killing cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, because its parachutes failed to open, and the Soyuz-11 mission in 1971 ended in a disaster when its capsule with three cosmonauts depressurised on re-entry.

While the U.S. space shuttle was far more comfortable to ride, especially on re-entry and landing, than the crump Soyuz, it certainly trailed Soyuz in safety. Out of the five space shuttles built during the 30-year-long programme, two were destroyed in accidents. In 1986, Challenger, carrying seven astronauts, broke apart 73 seconds into its flight due to a faulty engine seal. In 2003, Columbia exploded during re-entry into the earth's atmosphere, killing all seven crew members.

The only time Soyuz was struck by an accident similar to the one that destroyed Challenger, the crew were rescued thanks to the Russian ship's launch escape system. The accident occurred in 1983 at the Baikonur launch pad. The crew were in the spaceship waiting for takeoff when a leaking fuel valve at the base of the rocket set off a fire that engulfed the rocket within seconds. Ground controllers activated the escape system, which flung away the top sections of Soyuz with the cosmonauts inside, free from the three-stage rocket and lifted them more than one km before the descent capsule parachuted safely to land even as the launch pad crumbled in flames.

“My biggest dream in life has always been to fly in orbit someday, but I can tell you that I would feel a hell of a lot more at ease in a Soyuz than in a shuttle,” space historian Bert Vis once said.

The U.S. Accident Investigation Board that looked into the Columbia tragedy recommended that the spacecraft be replaced due to “the risks inherent in the original design of the space shuttle.”

The monopoly on carrying crew to the ISS over the next few years may inflate the Russian ego but there is a flip side: the additional burden on the Russian space industry will eat up its limited resources that could be used for other projects. Russia's space budget of $3 billion for this year is just a fraction of NASA's $18.5-billion budget. The construction of spacecraft has been put on assembly line in Russia: more than 30 ships are currently in the pipeline, with two-and-a-half years needed to build one spaceship. Despite its modest means, Russia holds 40 per cent of the world's space launches and constructs 20 per cent of spacecraft.

U.S. commentators who praise the sophistication of the U.S. space shuttle compared to the “primitive” Russian craft overlook the fact that the Soviet Union built its own space shuttle, Buran (Snowstorm) which, in some ways, including safety features, was superior to the American shuttle. For example, it was fitted with high-tech ejection seats for the crew that could be activated at altitudes of up to 24 km. At greater heights, Buran could detach from a malfunctioning booster rocket and glide down to a soft landing. Such an escape system could have saved the Challenger crew. Buran made its first and only flight in fully automatic mode without a crew in 1988. To overcome a crosswind of 20 metres per second, Buran's autopilot recalculated its landing trajectory and the spaceship landed on the runway from the opposite direction, to the amazement of ground controllers. It was a feat that remains unrivalled.

The Soviet space shuttle programme came to an abrupt end after the break-up of the Soviet Union, mainly for lack of funds. But before that, Buran helped push forward arms control talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union because its successful flight demonstrated the Russian ability to counter President Ronald Reagan's “Star Wars” programme.

Once the Cold War ended, space rivalry gave way to cooperation, as evidenced by the joint construction of the ISS and the U.S. decision to rely on Russian spacecraft after retiring the space shuttles. But lack of trust between the former adversaries still prevents them from joining forces to build a next generation spaceship. While the U.S.' overall technological superiority is a reality, Russia has an edge in some space technologies. For example, Lockheed Martin has ordered 101 Russian booster engines, R-180, for its Atlas-3 and Atlas-5 heavy rockets. The Energia booster rocket, built under the Buran shuttle programme, is still unrivalled anywhere in the world. It was a multipurpose rocket that could also be used for other space missions. It could place in orbit 100 tonnes of payloads, more than three times the U.S. space shuttle capacity.

Buran was designed as the first fully reusable shuttle system, with all rocket boosters to be equipped with parachutes and retrorocket soft landing systems. By contract, the U.S. space shuttles were semi-reusable because they had a throwaway central fuel tank and its solid rocket boosters (SRB) had to be heavily refurbished after splashing in the ocean. While the U.S. space shuttle glided to earth in unpowered mode and, therefore, had only one attempt to land, Buran was designed to carry two jet engines for increased landing manoeuvres. Also, it had superior thermal protection tiles, used less toxic and more efficient liquid fuel, had a higher payload capacity and was designed to carry 10 crew members against seven by the U.S. shuttle. Buran was the first and only space shuttle ever to perform an unmanned flight in fully automatic mode until the U.S. Air Force launched its Boeing X-37 space plane last year. But then, X-37 was a much smaller craft than the 100-tonne Buran.

The pooling of resources could help Russia and the U.S. develop a new generation of space vehicles faster and at a lesser cost. Experts say interplanetary missions would be too costly and technologically challenging for any nation. Two years ago, Russia and the U.S. set up a working group on space within a joint presidential commission for bilateral cooperation. However, the two countries are still largely going their separate ways. They are building two different space shuttle systems — a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle in the U.S. and a Prospective Piloted Transport System in Russia — and are drawing up separate programmes for the exploration of the Moon and the Mars.

Prospects for cooperation improved after President Barack Obama last year signed a new National Space Policy that placed emphasis on international cooperation, openness and transparency in space in contrast to President George W. Bush's strategy of global supremacy. However, a strong military space component in the U.S. global missile shield plan, which Russia sees as a threat to its security, is likely to hamper cooperation in the development of new space hardware.

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