Tim Furniss/LONDON

Russian space companies have been promised new funding, landed a multi-million dollar contract and completed another commercial satellite launch, despite the economic crisis that has beset the country. The fate of the nation's involvement in the International Space Station (ISS) remains unclear, however.

A Khrunichev-built Russian four-stage Proton K booster was launched from Baikonur on 30 August on an ILS International Launch Services mission to place the Hughes HS601HP model Astra 2A communications satellite successfully into orbit for Luxembourg company Société Européenne des Satellites.

It was the sixth successful ILS Proton launch out of seven attempts. Khrunichev and Russian firm Energia are partners in the ILS Lockheed Martin-led venture.

The Russian Government, meanwhile, has agreed to provide $38 million of funding to the ILS venture and $68 million to Khrunichev to increase Proton booster production to support up to 12 commercial ILS launches a year. The Proton will complement the ILS Atlas II and IIAS fleets and the new Atlas IIIA and IIIB boosters under development.

Another Russian company, NPO Energomash, has received a contract from Lockheed Martin for 18 RD-180 engines to power the ILS Atlas III booster which will also form the basis of one of the two US Air Force Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle families. Contracts are expected to be awarded later this month. The first Atlas III flight - an ILS mission - is scheduled for March 1999.

The contract is part of the agreement signed in June 1997 at the Paris air show for Energomash - with its US partner Pratt & Whitey - to supply 101 engines. Completion of the latest engine delivery will be in 2002, but more than 1,000 engines may eventually be provided, bringing to $2 billion the value of the contract, according to Energomash.

In anticipation of the fall-out of the crisis on the ISS, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin is reported already to have made contingency plans based on Russia being unable to provide the promised major components.

A two-month delay in the launch of the Russian Service Module, from April to June 1999, is now thought to be inevitable, according to sources close to NASA. The main reason for the delay is that Russian subcontractors will not deliver components without payment. The ISS launch schedule, starting with the flight of the Russian Zarya Control Module on 20 November, is likely to be delayed yet again.

Meanwhile, the recently returned crew of Soyuz TM27 claim that the Mir space station - due to be de-orbited in June 1999 - is in an "excellent state" and its scientific potential is "-only just beginning to be discovered".

The TM27 landed on 25 August, carrying commander Talgat Musaayev and flight engineer Nikolai Budarin, who were launched on 28 January, and Russian Government cosmonaut researcher Yuri Baturin, launched on the TM28 on 13 August.

"One cannot just throw it [the Mir] away," says former government aide Baturin referring to plans to de-orbit the station, adding that, "-at the very least, it should be transferred to the International Space Station - at least part of it should be".

Musabayev reports that "-the state of the Mir complex is from a technical point of view much better than it was the first time I flew there in 1994".

Source: Flight International