Crew returns after delivering `lifeboat’ to space station

M By David Holley

mOSCOW–A joint Russian-Belgian crew returned to Earth on Sunday after delivering an upgraded Soyuz TMA-1 spacecraft to the International Space Station, where the vehicle will serve as a lifeboat in case of emergency.

The 12-day mission–originally scheduled to include American singer Lance Bass from the pop group ‘N Sync as a corporate-sponsored space tourist–came amid concerns about how budget cuts in the Russian space program may affect the station’s operations.

Bass, who underwent training for the journey, would have been the world’s third space tourist, for a reported fee of $20 million. His backers had planned to produce a TV miniseries documenting the preparations and the flight, but they failed to come up with the money in time.

Russian space officials hope that such paying passengers would help keep their program going.

Belgium’s Prince Philippe flew to Kazakhstan to greet flight commander Sergei Zalyotin, engineer Yuri Lonchakov and Belgian engineer Frank de Winne, who said they felt fine despite a bumpier-than-usual nighttime landing.

Someone popped a Kazakh army officer’s wool hat onto De Winne even before he was out of the capsule.

“It was good. The flight went normally,” the engineer said.

“We fulfilled all the scientific programs.”

In keeping with Russia’s space traditions, the slightly shaken crew members left their autographs on the Soyuz capsule, charred from the heat of re-entry.

The three also bantered and praised one another.

“Frank is not only a top-notch specialist, he is also a polyglot,” Lonchakov said, commenting that De Winne had learned Russian in six months.

De Winne said the Russian crew had been “very helpful and attentive” to him on his first space voyage. “This is why the whole flight went so well.”

“I will be brief,” Zalyotin responded. “I will now fly only with Frank.”

This is the sort of international friendship that the space station program is supposed to encourage, yet the financial problems it has run into sometimes promote bickering among the partners instead.

Under a 1996 agreement with NASA, the Russian Aviation and Space Agency must replace the three-person Soyuz escape craft attached to the station approximately every six months, as its batteries begin to run out.

Russian space officials said last month, however, that they might not have enough money next year to meet their Soyuz commitments, which extend to 2006.

After that, the United States is supposed to provide the emergency escape vehicle, but a NASA prototype, the seven-person X-38, was canceled as too costly. A proposed small orbital space plane, which would be launched by rocket, is considered unlikely to be available before 2010.

Until NASA has something ready, Soyuz craft are the only lifeboat alternative.

The number of astronauts who can work at any one time in the 240-mile-high station is limited to the number of seats available in the lifeboat craft. Possibilities for scientific research–a primary interest of the European, Japanese and Canadian partners–will be severely limited if only three people, rather than the planned six or seven, can be there at one time. This problem has already caused serious complaints to NASA from those countries.