More flights could follow US/Russian talks on taking "urgent steps" to keep International Space Station operational

Russia will fly an extra Progress unmanned resupply craft to the International Space Station (ISS) this year, in addition to three Soyuz crew vehicle and three Progress flights. Eight Progress/Soyuz flights are planned for 2004.

Rosaviakosmos general director Yuri Koptev has met Russian president Vladimir Putin to discuss additional funding following the grounding of NASA's Space Shuttle fleet. Putin has agreed with US president George Bush that "the two countries shall take urgent steps to keep the ISS operational".

"It is crucial for us to find a way out of the current situation with the station," Koptev says, adding that additional spacecraft flights in 2004 is "the necessary condition". NASA has asked for pricing on additional Progress and Soyuz flights, but is barred by law from providing funding to Russia.

The Progress that docked this month has fired its engine to raise the ISS orbit by 10km (6 miles). The station has sufficient propellant to remain in stable orbit at least a year without Shuttle support, NASA says, and a permanent crew can be maintained "as long as necessary" with Progress/Soyuz flights.

Water is critical, as it was mostly carried into orbit by Shuttles. NASA says a three-man crew cannot be supported beyond June with planned Progress flights, the next of which is in June. A Soyuz "taxi" flight planned for April may be changed to a crew exchange mission, with a two-man crew taking over to conserve water.

The present three-man crew would return in the Soyuz lifeboat attached to the ISS. This would reduce the station's capability, as a two-man crew could not operate the ISS and run experiments.

Koptev declines to confirm whether Russia's space tourist flights will be postponed indefinitely. "If we cancel two visitors' flights to the station, then we'll lose $45 million, which is already taken account of in the financial plans for this year," he says.

Rosaviakosmos and the European Space Agency have agreed further European astronaut missions on Soyuz flights to the ISS. The accord may lead to Soyuz launches from Kourou, French Guiana, by 2006.

Source: Flight International