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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kazakhstan Lifts Ban on Baikonur Launches




Kazakhstan on Wednesday lifted the ban on launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, just as time was running out for Russia to send a Progress cargo ship to the Mir space station.


"We are very satisfied that this problem has been resolved and we strongly hope that Kazakhstan will not repeat such unfriendly acts in the future," said Sergei Gorbunov, spokesman for the Russian Space Agency.


The space agency had warned that unless the supply ship, whose launch was initially planned for Wednesday, was allowed to blast off by Monday, the launch would have to be delayed for another month. This delay, officials said, could result in Mir spinning out of control and crashing down to Earth.


Gorbunov said the launch of the Progress M-42 should take place either Friday or Sunday. The craft is to deliver control equipment that will allow Mir to be operated from the ground after the departure of the final crew, scheduled for August.


He said Russian and Kazakh experts are hammering out the legal details of when and how Russia will compensate Kazakhstan for the damage caused by the July 5 crash of a Proton rocket, which led to the launch ban.


Also being negotiated is the training of Kazakh cosmonauts in Russia as well as when Russia will transfer the first part of the $115 million fee that it is required to pay every year for renting Baikonur.


Nurlan Usimbayev, deputy head of the Kazakhstan Aerospace Agency, said in a telephone interview that he expects Russia to pay $50 million in cash this year, with the rest of the fee to be covered by deliveries of various goods from Russia.


Top Russian officials, including space agency general director Yury Koptev and Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, had appealed to Kazakh authorities to lift the ban.


Tuesday, Stepashin dispatched his deputy Ilya Klebanov, who oversees Russia's space and defense industries, to Astana, the Kazakh capital.


Klebanov managed to persuade Kazakhstan to lift the ban after some 10 hours of negotiations with Kazakh Prime Minister Nurlan Balgimbayev and his deputy Alexander Pavlov on Wednesday. The agreement was announced in a joint news conference in Astana.


While allowing Russia to launch the Progress with a Soyuz rocket and also the Russian-Ukrainian research satellite Okean-0 with a Zenit-2 rocket, the Kazakh government kept the embargo on launches of Proton rockets.


The Zenit and Soyuz rockets are fueled by a rather harmless mixture of kerosene and oxygen, while the Proton runs on highly toxic heptil fuel. Fuel from the Proton that crashed last week burned out more than 500 hectares of pasture.


The Okean-O could be launched as early as Thursday.


Usimbayev said all Proton launches will remain banned until preliminary results of the July 5 crash are known. This is likely to happen some time next week, according to Konstantin Lantratov, spokesman for the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, outside of Moscow, which makes the Proton.


In the 278th second of its flight, fire erupted and burned through a gas pipe that led to the combustion chamber of one of the second stage's four engines, which are developed by the Voronezh-based Design Bureau of Chemical Automatics, Lantratov said in a telephone interview Wednesday.


The fire spread through the second stage's fuel tank and in the space of two seconds, all four engines had shut down, he said.


Reached by phone Wednesday in Voronezh, Vladimir Sopin, aide to the head of the Design Bureau of Chemical Automatics, said the malfunction could have been caused by inferior fuel. But he warned that it was too early to say what caused the breakdown.


Both Gorbunov and Alain Fournier-Sicre, head of the European Space Agency permanent mission in Russia, said they are confident that Kazakhstan will also lift the ban on Proton launches by the time this rocket has to launch a key element of the International Space Station in November.


The launch moratorium has highlighted how dependent Russia's national space program remains on a foreign country, Moscow-based independent aerospace expert Paul Duffy said.


"It is amazing that a country of such a size has no central cosmodrome on its own territory and has to rely heavily on a foreign country," Duffy said in a telephone interview.


Duffy suggested that the Russian government should scramble to develop the Plesetsk and Svobodny cosmodromes on its own territory.


The space agency, however, sees no alternative to Baikonur in the foreseeable future.


"We will lose much, if not all, if we lose Baikonur," Koptev said earlier this week.