The $100-billion International Space Station is scheduled to be completed this year and when that happens, the United States space agency NASA will retire its shuttle fleet. U.S. astronauts will soon rely on Russian spacecraft to carry them into space.
When the Soviet Union put the first man in space in 1961, Yuri Gagarin’s flight was celebrated as a major Cold War victory. And as Russia gears up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that flight in April, it also prepares for once unheard of cooperation with its former Cold War enemy, the United States.
NASA has cancelled its plans for a post-shuttle space vehicle. Until U.S. commercial firms build spaceships capable of carrying humans, America plans to pay Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to space on board Soyuz spacecraft.
NASA is retiring the shuttle despite believing it is technologically more sophisticated than the Soyuz, says Robert Navias, the agency's program and mission operations lead. “The Soyuz, by comparison, you can think of as a sports car, three crewmembers jammed into a small section of a module," he said.
A string of incidents related to Soyuz has raised concerns. Problems during a landing in April 2008 resulted in a dangerously steep re-entry trajectory.
Russian Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev says the older technology of the Soyuz is nothing to worry about. "They built it in such a way that we can change some parts, some hardware and actually this Soyuz is going to be different, because we changed the computer, we changed some logic and still it inherits some reliability," he said.
The U.S. will pay Russia more than $50 million for each round trip ticket to the Space Station. So far, six seats are reserved for 2013 and 2014.
Rising powers such as China and India are entering a new era of competition for space supremacy. But former Cold War foes Russia and the U.S. have put rivalry aside, in favor of cooperation in the exploration of space.