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Canada's Julie Payette backs Russian space plan

Canadian Space Agency astronaut Julie Payette smiles after arriving with the crew of space shuttle Endeavour at the shuttle landing facility in Cape Canaveral, Florida June 8, 2009.

Scott Audette/Reuters/Scott Audette/Reuters

When they see the young Canadian woman in a crowded Moscow subway train with her backpack full of dictionaries and textbooks, most Russians assume she is just another foreign student.

In reality, Julie Payette is a Canadian astronaut, already a veteran of one flight to the orbiting International Space Station and now in the queue for another mission.

"This is not a glamorous job," she jokes, taking a break from the subway cars and rusting old Lada taxis that she catches around Moscow for her latest job in a space-test support team.

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But her Moscow experiences have given her an unusually close glimpse of ordinary Russian life. And at a time when critics are accusing the Russians of everything from sexual harassment during an isolation experiment to expensive delays in the new space station, the 36-year-old Quebecker has become a bridge between two clashing cultures.

More than most foreigners, Ms. Payette sympathizes with the Russian space scientists who are struggling to support two orbiting stations with a tiny national budget.

"I think they do miracles with very little, all the time," she said in an interview, marvelling at the engineers with whom she works.

"In a way, it's none of our business to tell the Russians how to run their aerospace industry. The whole international space station is built on trust of the partner."

Much of this trust, however, is eroding. The Russians are already under fire from U.S. politicians and commentators who want to dump Moscow from the trouble-plagued international project.

The latest controversy is the soaring multi-billion-dollar cost of launch delays and construction problems, for which the Russians are widely blamed.

A U.S. space shuttle is scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral on Monday in a rescue mission to keep the international station aloft. The station's first module has orbited the earth more than 8,000 times since it was launched in November of 1998, yet it remains empty and idle. Its batteries are failing, its warranty has expired and it is losing altitude at a rate of half a kilometre every day.

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The Russians had promised to launch the all-important Zvezda service module, with the station's living quarters and control systems, in early 1998. Now, because of money shortages and rocket failures, the launch of Zvezda is behind schedule.

Critics accuse Russia of diverting resources to its own Mir space station, which is still orbiting after 14 years in space. For patriotic reasons, the Russians are reluctant to kill Mir, and they have found private investors to keep it in orbit.

After two years of delays, the Zvezda module will not be launched until July at the earliest, so a shuttle crew must fly to the station next week for urgent repairs and supplies to extend its life and boost it into a higher orbit.

Analysts say the Russian delays have added as much as $3-billion (U.S.) in costs to NASA, the American space agency, which is one of 16 partners, including Canada, in the multinational space station.

"The first module was never designed to fly this long alone," said Houston-based space analyst James Oberg, a former NASA scientist.

"They're straining their resources and increasing the chances of unpleasant surprises. There's a growing potential for sudden, catastrophic breakdown. They're rolling the dice every day."

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The international station has locked itself into a dependence on Russian supply flights, especially in the final quarter of this year, when it will need three Russian flights with crucial supplies of rocket fuel.

"The concern is that they'll divert those supply ships to Mir," Mr. Oberg said. "If the flights don't show up, the international station will be in a crisis, falling lower and lower."

NASA, too, has contributed its share of delays to the international station. The prime contractor, Boeing, is expecting almost $1-billion (U.S.) in cost overruns. In the most notorious fiasco, Boeing accidentally threw two $750,000 air tanks into an Alabama garbage dump. It searched the landfill site, but failed to find them.

Among the Canadian and U.S. astronauts, however, there is growing confidence that the worst is behind them. The launch of Zvezda in July would trigger an accelerated schedule of launches almost every month as the station's assembly finally accelerates.

Michael Baker, a former U.S. astronaut who is now the chief NASA representative in Moscow, argues that it would be a mistake to dump the Russians from the international station.

"These guys are extremely valuable to us, and they bring a lot to the program," he said in an interview. "Every day that our folks work together, we learn something. Certainly everyone is frustrated at the delays; not only us, the Russians, too. But at the moment there's lots of excitement. With a successful launch in July, we'll be on our way."

Ms. Payette is equally staunch in her defence of the partnership with the Russians.

"These delays were inevitable," she said. "It happened because there are so many partners. When you look at the scope of the project, the challenge is unbelievable. It requires all the ingenuity that humans are capable of."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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