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Outside View: Row over Baikonur

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Andrei Kislyakov
Moscow (UPI) Nov 1, 2007
On Oct. 26, a Proton heavy launch vehicle lifted off from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan, a Central Asian republic.

Although this can hardly be described as breaking news, Moscow had every reason to be worried because Kazakhstan had suspended all Proton launches after one crashed on Sept. 6.

The unsuccessful launch of the most reliable Russian rocket came as a blow to the national space program and jeopardized the vital Global Navigation Satellite -- GLONASS -- program because GLONASS spacecraft can only lift off of Proton vehicles, and six satellites in this series have to be placed in orbit by late 2007.

The Oct. 26 launch was a success and another one is scheduled for December.

To be frank, Kazakh authorities made everyone nervous because they agreed to lift the ban on Proton launches only on the eve of Oct. 26. However, Moscow began to feel uneasy soon after the crash after Astana estimated toxic-fuel pollution costs and the damage payments at more than $60 million. This caused mutterings of discontent at the Russian Space Agency, Roskosmos.

It became obvious that the concerned Russian and Kazakh commissions would have to negotiate damage payments and that precisely this issue would be the key to subsequent launches.

Russian concerns mounted Oct. 9, when Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov said he would not visit Baikonur the next day. Previously, Roskosmos said Masimov had planned to visit the Proton launch facility and to make sure that everything was being done to prevent future accidents.

Moscow had every reason to hope that Masimov would lift the ban during his talks with Roskosmos Director Anatoly Perminov at Baikonur.

According to Perminov, the solution of technical problems, rather than damage payments, was the main precondition for launches to resume.

Perminov said a Russian government commission did not link the damage payments with resumed Proton launches. On Oct. 8 Perminov told Masimov in Astana that, under bilateral agreements, a study of the accident's causes and subsequent Russian efforts to prevent technical mishaps were the main preconditions for resumed Proton launches.

Despite such logic, Moscow's doubts were not dispelled because both sides failed to agree on damage payments and Masimov did not show up at Baikonur. Incidentally, an International Space Station crew that lifted off on the same day did not see Masimov either.

But all is well that ends well. We have no reason to doubt the reliability of Proton launch vehicles. Under a Russian-Kazakh protocol, Moscow and Astana should settle all damage payments by Dec. 1. And, honestly, money is not the most important thing in space.

(Andrei Kislyakov is a political commentator for RIA Novosti. This article is reprinted by permission of RIA Novosti. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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Russia aims for new far east space launch pad by 2020
Moscow (AFP) Sept 21, 2007
The head of the Russian space agency Roskosmos said on Friday he hoped a new spacecraft launch site would be built in the Russian far east by 2020 to supplement the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

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