The Columbia shuttle disaster has handed Russia a crucial role as the sole nation capable of supplying the international space station. But Russian space officials say cash is needed to build new rockets and warn astronauts may have to stay in space longer because of a lack of ships ready to fly.
Russia is also concerned that NASA might choose to leave the space station unoccupied once the current crew comes down — a move the Russian space brass believes might well doom the 16-nation project.
With prospects for future shuttle flights unclear pending the outcome of the investigation into Saturday's shuttle disaster, Russia's Soyuz crew capsules and Progress cargo ships are now the only link to the space station and the three-man crew currently in space.
Since the first crew entered the station in 2000, the orbiting outpost has relied on U.S. shuttle missions for most supplies, while Russia's spacecraft have played a secondary role.
Russian space officials say they can assume the primary role, provided the United States and other partners offer money to build more ships. They said this week they are already talking to NASA about how to run the station without shuttles.
The new challenge could help revive Russia's troubled space industry.
"We need more money to revise our production schedules and engage our suppliers," said Yuri Semyonov, chief of RKK Energiya, the company that builds both Soyuz and Progress ships.
Potential new orders would offer relief to Energiya and other Soviet-era space giants that have struggled to survive on a fraction of once-generous state funds following the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The Khrunichev rocket plant has been an exception, earning tens of millions of dollars by launching foreign satellites.
The money crunch delayed the launch of the pivotal Russian-built crew module for the space station by more than two years, until 2000. A chronic cash shortage prompted Russia to discard the Mir space station in March 2001.
Russian media speculate NASA may opt to keep the station temporarily unoccupied after its current crew returns, causing an indefinite break in Russia's own manned space program for the first time since Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space in 1961.
Russian officials and cosmonauts say leaving the international space station empty could doom the celestial outpost.
"The station's parameters are such that it's impossible to leave it without crew," said cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, who took part in talks with NASA about the station's future. "I believe that NASA understands it quite well. It's not in the American line to abandon a piece of equipment which is worth billions of dollars."
Semyonov and other Russian space officials said this week that a Soyuz would carry a replacement crew to the station in late April, but NASA said it hasn't been decided how or when the current crew would return home.
Vinogradov said the next crew would likely include two men — a Russian and an American — instead of the usual three.
"We will have to send a minimal crew because we aren't in a very good shape in terms of life-support resources, primarily water," Vinogradov told The Associated Press, though he added there's no "critical shortage."
The next crew will likely have to spend about six months in orbit instead of the usual four months because Russia doesn't have enough Soyuz escape capsules to replace the crews more frequently than twice a year, Vinogradov said.
"We don't have a stock of Soyuz ships, they need to be built," he said.
In the past, U.S. shuttles ferried long-term crews to the station, while Russian rockets carried cosmonauts and space tourists on short visits, using a fresh Soyuz craft and leaving it behind as an emergency lifeboat.
The Soyuz and its cargo version, the Progress, date back to the 1960s and can be used only once, unlike the space shuttles. The Soyuz looks decidedly claustrophobic with three cosmonauts cramped in their seats. A Progress can carry only 2.75 tons of cargo, compared to a much heavier shuttle payload.
Russia was supposed to send two Soyuz and three Progress ships to the station this year, but space agency officials warned last fall that it might be unable to meet its obligations because of lack of money.
A Progress costs about $22 million, and a Soyuz is slightly more expensive. It normally takes 18 months to two years to build a ship.
Russian space officials said four to six Progress ships a year would be needed to operate the station without shuttles. If the United States pays for the extra ships, Energiya would speed up production cycles to deliver them on time, Semyonov said. "If they give us money, we will mobilize all our resources and provide the ships," he said.
The Russian manned space program has had no fatalities since three cosmonauts died during re-entry in 1971; the two U.S. shuttle disasters killed 14 astronauts.
The Russians angrily deny allegations that their spacecraft are out of date.
"Yes, the Soyuz's structural design dates back to the 1960s, but the rest of it — engines, computers, software are all new," Vinogradov said. "The ship looks old only to nonprofessionals."
Russia mothballed its shuttle, the Buran, soon after a single, flawless unmanned flight in 1988 because of money problems, and Russian Aerospace Agency Director Yuri Koptev said this week the program can't be revived.