Posted: Wednesday, October 11, 2000
During the last weeks those interested in the future of the MIR space station have to endure a uninterrupted stream of meanings and comments about the future of the MIR space station.
Roughly this material can be divided into 2 contradicting tendenses each other. One is based on information from MIRcorp and people who are sure that the initiative of some rich persons in the West guarantees an extension of MIR's existence with at least 3 years. Regretfully this is the result of wishful thinking.
A very important fact is that the whole MIR-complex is property of the Russian state. To be clear: inclusive the hard- and software on board, also all what has been brought in by foreign users. So the Russian government is free to do all what she wants, but is also legally responsible for all eventual calamities caused by the station, for instance an uncontrolled entry in the earth's atmosphere. Russia leases the station to MIRcorp, a private organisation of which 40% is in the hands of western investors and 60% in those of RKK Energiya, the organisation which thusfar solely explored and controlled the MIR station. In fact a strange construction, as it is clear that the western part of MIRcorp has to secure the financial basis for the commercial exploitation of MIR. RKK Energiya wants to do all what is possible to maintain the MIR-station, but it is a private organisation successfully operating on the international market but nevertheless has to deal with the everlasting struggle to survive economically and it is not in its interest to use profits from the production of spaceflight hardware to keep MIR alive.
When this firm was still a state enterprise all went well and RKK Energiya made money by exploring the MIR station: guest cosmonauts from several countries made spaceflights in the framework of contracts between the Russian government and states and their organisations (CNES, DLR, NASA, but also ESA) paid for such flights and delivered the hard- and software for the experiments executed by their 'astronauts'.
The government of the Soviet Union and later Russia regularly took care of extra financial support when more money was needed. The Soviet government for instance assigned 15 million dollars for the expedition of Helen Sharman when Mrs. Thatcher refused to pay 20 million for the British mission and British scientific institutes only could find 5 million for that flight. In general, RKK Energiya could proceed with MIR without risks although the Russian government always assisgned less than needed. Often this scarce support caused delays (for instance the launches of modules and necessary modifications). Sometimes certain plans could be realised by borrowing rockets from the rocket forces.
But now the exploitation is fully commercial and all what the Russians or their partners want to do with the MIR-station has to be paid by MIRcorp. The station has been leased with the purpose to made profits. MIRcorp started with the announcement of a number of intentions but insiders immediately stated that these were unrealistic. Examples were the use of the MIR-station as an Internet portal, or for repairs of orbiting satellites, advertising and the transfer of some of the station's modules in a 'space hotel' for rich tourists. The only realistic possibility was the use of the experiment hardware in the laboratory modules with the exception of the damaged module Spektr.
If this might give solace is in doubt for the International Space Station derives her viability from the continuation and the modernisation of a lot of MIR experiments and the majority of users of ISS laboratoria will consist of former MIR clients. But it will last a few years before the ISS will be fully operational and MIR might be able to serve experimenters during that interim period.
So both information streams indicate that there are serious financial problems. In fact the persons that gave money did not invest in the future of the MIR-station, but they paid only to support the present existence of the MIR-complex. The first publications mentioned lots of money to be invested in MIR, but sponsors, generous donors and users did not show up as much as expected and instead of hundreds of millions only sums of approximately dozens of millions came in. MIRcorp offered shares and recently promised to have these signed in space for the shareholders.
So regretfully no substantial investments came in and without such investments commercial initiatives do not have a future. The payments remained limited to the costs for some freighters and 1 manned expedition. Proudly MIRcorp published about these payments, but to keep MIR operational much more is needed and this is the main problem. For that the Russians need more money, so no promises, but 'cash'. Staffs has to be paid. Workers of all organisations, supporting projects like MIR, for instance the Training Centre for Cosmonauts, TsPK, near Moscow are scandalously underpaid.
There has been word about a number of candidates for tourist flights, but these candidates one by one cried off except for one: Dennis Tito. This very rich citizen of the United States, who already had a career in spaceflight, is still a serious candidate and nowadays he is regularly present in TsPK to get prepared for a flight. He already paid part of the amount he promised. How much is still unclear. A few weeks ago rumoured a sum of 22 million of the total promised 50 million dollars. Later there were denials and the amount of 17 million showed up without a reference how much he had promised. He refused to pay the rest after his flight as a tourist and he demanded from the Russians the guarantee that he would fly. For somebody from the west a reasonable desire, but the Russians want to get the money immediately and are reluctant to give that guarantee. So more or less a stalemate situation.
But nevertheless his training goes on, but this is not easy. He does not speak Russian and his only wish is to fly as a tourist, so to see the earth from above and to play somewhat with weightlessness. So there is no word about experiments or a training to become a real cosmonaut. According to the most actual information the flight of Tito will now take place not earlier than the summer of 2001. Originally there would be a Main Expedition nr. 29 with the crew Sharipov and Vinogradov. With the relief crew for that mission, Main Expedition nr. 30 consisting of Musabayev and Baturin, tourist Tito would make a short flight of 10 or 14 days. Most likely the ME 29 will be cancelled.
Meanwhile the MIR-space station has to remain alive and measures are needed to prevent that the altitude of the complex will be reduced too much under influence of the high solar activity. So a freighter has to be launched to correct the orbit. The Russian government made available such a freighter and this will be launched from Baykonur on 15.10.2000 at 2149UTC (so for us still on 15.10, for Russia and Kazakhstan already 16.10).
So MIRcorp gets this freighter 'free of charge', but possibly this must not be considered to be a little present. It is in the interest of the Russian government to maintain a safe orbit and this freighter can also be used if she decides to 'dump' the MIR-complex.
The finances at MIRcorp's disposal are not sufficient to maintain the operational status of the MIR-complex. When we speak about Russians involved in the flight of the MIR-space station we speak about a great number of organisations, who all need a part of that money. And as already mentioned, before that was not such a big problem. They, in the first place RKK Energiya always got, if needed at least somewhat from the Russian government. These days every rubel of the budget for manned spaceflight has to go to the Russian contribution in the ISS according to promises made to the partners in that project. However Putin promised to assign money for the prolongation of MIR's life, but thusfar he did not give a 'kopeyk' for that purpose. Obviously RKK Energiya so seriously counted on this, that she recently ventilated cries of distress tha t'unless there would be extra money, the MIR-station had to be burnt up in the atmosphere after 15.02.2001'.
Because of the fact that apart from tourism (I leave out of consideration of some recent fantastic ideas) and customers for experiments are not queuing no money could be found for the continuation of the exploitation, the question is if it is possible to make the station profitable by space tourism.
If the prices for tourist flights vary around 20 million dollar, this is impossible. For the flight of 1 tourist combined with maintaining the operational state between tourist flights, launches of freighters to correct the orbit for instance, that price has to be much higher. There are more activities to be paid: the trainings, not only of the tourists themselves, but the cosmonauts also have to undergo an extra training and what about the contributions in the infrastructures on earth: flight control, communications and launch facilities. And if something special happens, i.e. failures or emergency situations, extra money has to be found.
A lot of persons, responsible for Russian manned spaceflight, like designers, constructors, heads of departments and industries, state that Russia only can maintain her important role as spaceflight power if she fully concentrates on the ISS. An example is Koptev, the Head of Rosaviakosmos, the Russian NASA. Their fear is that the goodwil they have among their partners in the ISS will vanish if they too much cling to the maintaining of the MIR-station.
So this all is just my opinion based on the study of all information available, but also on that what I could determine during my visit to Russia a few weeks ago.
Personally I would very much regret if at short notice the MIR-exploitation would be concluded. With a lot of effort and extra investments the station can survive for some time. But this will be only possible if the Russian government changes her present policy and , eventually in agreement with her ISS partners, takes MIR under her care, assignes sufficient means for that purpose and puts these at the disposal of RKK Energiya for a solid exploitation and a responsible control over the MIR space station.
We, enthousiasts for manned spaceflight don't need to be afraid that we suffer any deficiency for on 30.10.2000 the first main expediton to the ISS will start. The crew consists of the American Shepherd and the Russians Gidzenko and Krikalyov. During the flight to the ISS with the Soyuz-TM (so not yet a Soyuz-TMA) Gidzenko will be commander of that S-TM. After ingress of that crew into the ISS Shepherd will take over the command and flight control for the greater part will be in the hands of Flight Control in Houston.
Chris van den Berg, NL-9165/A-UK3202
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