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Russia’s Shuttle Diplomacy

What does the crash of the space shuttle Columbia mean for the myth of American unilateralism?

February 5, 2003

What does the crash of the space shuttle Columbia mean for the myth of American unilateralism?

Back in 1986, when the U.S. space shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff, the entire NASA shuttle program was grounded for over two years, until the causes of the disaster were investigated and problems remedied.

However, today the US space program simply can't afford to stop flights. The problem is that now, unlike 17 years ago, the United States is a leading developer of the International Space Station (ISS).

The ISS has been in orbit for over four years, and even now there is a crew of three, including two Americans and one Russian, working in outer space.

The current crew, the sixth working on the ISS since its inception, was launched in November 2002 and was scheduled to return to earth in March.

The next crew has been training in Houston in preparation for its own flight aboard the shuttle to the Space Station. But following the tragic events of February 1, all shuttles are likely to be grounded indefinitely.

Ironically, on February 2, the day after the Columbia tragedy, Rosaviakosmos — the Russian equivalent of NASA — successfully launched the Progress 10 unmanned cargo craft from its Baikonur launching site in Kazakhstan. Its purpose was to re-supply the International Space Station.

While Russian scientists, space officials and astronauts mourned the tragic loss of the Columbia, they also expressed confidence that the ISS program will continue — using Russian-made Soyuz space craft.

There is the issue of bringing Crew 6 back—and also sending up a new crew, since the Space Station shouldn't be left unoccupied for long time periods.

In fact, Russian television already reported that Rosaviakosmos could be ready to launch Crew 7 in May, only two months after the previously scheduled launch date.

Of course, the Space Station was a brainchild of the Clinton Administration, the well-known softies often blamed these days for having opted for multilateral scenarios — where unilateralism would have done at least as well.

Moreover, Russian cooperation was solicited in part because it was a way to employ Russian rocket scientists. Otherwise, they might have sold their considerable skills to such rogue states as North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Since the arrival of the Bush Administration, the mood in Washington has changed sharply.

Rather then working together with other nations to find solutions to common international problems, the White House now prefers a unilateral approach. Other nations have a choice of following in America's wake — or, so they are told, to face the consequences.

If the Bush Administration had been developing the Space Station, it probably would have done it alone, without involving other nations.

After all, the currently prevailing reasoning in Washington sees the United States as the only superpower, which must lead — not entangle itself in agreements, alliances or partnerships with other nations.

Imagine the kind of disaster that would have entailed. Think of American astronauts stranded in outer space — and the grounded shuttle unable to reach them.

But, fortunately, this nightmare scenario is not going to take place.

The Russians — as the left-over near-equal space exploration partners with the United States from the bad old days of American multilateralism — will be there to make sure that the Space Station survives.