Star City, Russia – Astronaut Garrett Reisman uttered a first word in heavily-accented Russian and his homegrown audience exploded into applause, giving a taste of how space can clear national differences.
The welcome back for the crew 17th International Space Station (ISS) mission at Star City, a formerly secret military base outside Moscow, is a familiar affair with the Soviet-tinged feel of war heroes coming home to children holding balloons as they line the walkway.
Two teenage girls cooed over how cute first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was in a huge black-and-white shot above the stage where NASA officials sat with translator ear pieces one row back behind the cosmonauts and officials from the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.
They took turns congratulating “our boys” between bursts of fanfare that NASA staff on the base where astronauts train to fly aboard the Soyuz can all by now hum by heart.
A speech hailing the mission as a step to “putting a man on Mars” by NASA’s Chicago-born director of the human space flight program, Joel Montalbano, was at odds in the stilted atmosphere.
“We’ll have to go through this four times a year now,” John McBrine, the veteran director of US operations at Star City, said, sharing a sigh, a grin and a drink with colleagues afterwards.
McBrine’s was not an idle complaint, he has raised the issue with Houston afraid of time constraints as Star City increases to four launches a year.
That’s because Star City will soon hold the only ticket to the space station. From 2010, NASA will be buying seats for its astronauts on the Soyuz much like space tourists.
Simultaneously, crews will swell from three to six as the expansion of the 100-billion-dollar ISS nears completion on its 10th anniversary Thursday.
NASA’s planned dependence on Russia is controversial as animosity between the Cold War foes mounts over the conflict in Georgia and a host of other security differences.
US president-elect Barack Obama has vowed to speed the development of a successor shuttle.
NASA administrator Michael Griffin has reportedly ordered the agency to look into ways to extend its shuttle flights, but NASA staff say the suspension of flights is already a practical reality.
But Star City veterans believe in the hard-won partnership with Russia which in many ways they pioneered and which, they say, has resulted in a strong relationship stretching into its 15th year.
“While some people may question the International Space Station, the fact remains its an engineering, scientific and foreign management marvel that is pulling humankind into the cosmos,” said. Montalbano.
“No one country has the money to do it all.”
Reisman, still and perhaps forever on a high from his recent space mission, was an example of that cooperation.
He said he now faces a career choice of whether to sign up for one of the last US shuttles for a two-week stint in space or invest in another three-year bout of training for one of the longer Soyuz missions.
There is an inkling of the space race in NASA’s smart-budget re-diversion of funds to new and improved space shuttles. For Russia the station is the only space game in town, Montalbano said.
From “low-earth orbit” it is a three-hour emergency landing back to earth, he said: “We aren’t going to have that luxury on the moon and Mars.”
It is not clear whether there was political will to maintain the ISS beyond its planned 2015 expiration date exists, he said. But until that time, NASA staff say, they have and will work with Russia.
While politics may be professionally avoided, as NASA staff insist, a cultural gap persists in the US, Russia space partnership – at least to the delight of the cosmonauts and astronauts thrown together.
Cosmonaut Sergei Volkov toasted Reisman “as his first American friend” at a small gathering before Jersey-native Reisman prepared to fly home.
There was a crescendo of laughter as they traded memories: Volkov was made to watch the US college cult film Animal House in space while Reisman was taught to take a “snow bath” in sub-zero temperatures during survival training.
“The cosmonauts are often our greatest allies here,” McBrine says. “They spend time in Houston and when they come back here its not about Russians and Americans anymore – it’s one team.” (dpa)