Russian, North American astronauts to return to earth

NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Canadian Space Agency's David Saint-Jacques and cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko of Roscosmos at the Space Station on Dec. 3, 2018. (NASA photo via Twitter)
Updated 25 June 2019

Russian, North American astronauts to return to earth

  • The trio’s launch on December 3 was the first after a Soyuz rocket failed in October just minutes after blast-off

ALMATY, Kazakhstan: The first crew to blast off to the International Space Station following a launch accident that deepened doubts over Russia’s space program is set to return to earth Tuesday.
NASA astronaut Anne McClain, veteran cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko of Roscosmos, and Canadian Space Agency record-holder David Saint-Jacques are expected to touch down on the steppes of Kazakhstan at around 0248 GMT.
The trio’s launch on December 3 was the first after a Soyuz rocket carrying Russia’s Aleksey Ovchinin and US astronaut Nick Hague failed in October just minutes after blast-off, forcing the pair to make an emergency landing.
They escaped unharmed but the failed launch was the first such incident in Russia’s post-Soviet history and a new setback for the country’s once proud space industry.
McClain, Kononenko and Saint-Jacques were optimistic ahead of their successful launch and remained upbeat throughout their time aboard the orbital lab which is seen as a rare example of cooperation between Russia and the West.
“A beautiful night pass over Africa on my last night on @Space_Station,” tweeted 40-year-old McClain, who completed two spacewalks during her virgin mission to the ISS.
Fellow first-time flyer Saint-Jacques broke the record for the longest single spaceflight by a Canadian astronaut, previously held by Robert Thirsk.
Thirsk clocked 187 days at the ISS in 2009 during a typical six-month mission, while 49-year-old Saint-Jacques’ mission will stand at 204 days by the time he touches down.
The record was helped along by the fact that the launch was moved forward to December 3 from December 20 for operational reasons — possibly as a confidence booster after the accident.
The returning trio were joined aboard the ISS by Ovchinin, Hague and NASA astronaut Christina Koch in March.
Koch, who was not part of Hague and Ovchinin’s aborted mission in October, will have her stay at the ISS extended to nearly 11 months, which would set a record for the longest spaceflight by a woman, NASA confirmed in April.
That record is currently held by Koch’s former NASA colleague Peggy Whitson, now retired, who spent 288 days aboard the ISS in 2016-17, NASA said.
Russians dominate the rankings for cumulative days spent in space, with the returning Kononenko set to reach 737 days by the time his fourth mission is complete on Tuesday.
That will leave the 55-year-old sixth in the all-time standings and just a typical ISS mission short of beating the 879-day record set by 60-year-old Roscosmos colleague Gennady Padalka in 2015.
Since 2011, Russia is the only country to oversee manned launches to the ISS.
But last year’s failed launch, multi-billion dollar corruption scandals at Roscosmos and the emergence of private sector competitors like Elon Musk’s SpaceX have combined to put into question Moscow’s future dominance.
NASA said earlier this month that it will be opening the ISS up to space tourists for the first time next year with 30-day visits expedited by SpaceX and Boeing expected to cost around $58 million per person.
Russia has flown seven tourists to the ISS but is set to increase that number beginning in 2021, according to Roscosmos, which struck a deal with American company Space Adventures earlier this year.
US businessman Dennis Tito was the first space tourist to the ISS, paying Russia around $20 million for the trip.


New bid to find buyer for Air India slammed as ‘selling family silver’

Updated 28 January 2020

New bid to find buyer for Air India slammed as ‘selling family silver’

  • Indian government aims to offload entire stake in debt-ridden national carrier after failed 2018 sale attempt
  • Critics blame country’s struggling economy for decision to sell airline

NEW DELHI: Renewed government attempts to find a buyer for “debt trap” national carrier, Air India, have been slammed as “selling the family silver.”

Politicians from opposition and pro-government parties condemned the move by the Indian government to offload its entire stake in the flag-carrier airline, which comes more than a year after a failed bid to sell a controlling share.

A document released on Monday said that any bidder would have to absorb around $3.3 billion of debt along with other liabilities.

Speaking in New Delhi on Tuesday, Kapil Sibal, senior leader of India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, said: “When governments don’t have money this is what they do.

“The government of India has no money; growth is less than 5 percent and millions of rupees are outstanding under several social schemes. This is what they will do, sell all the valuable assets we have.”

Derek O’Brien of the Trinamool Congress, the regional party ruling West Bengal, said in a video statement that “the government has decided to sell more family silver by selling 100 percent stake in Air India. You can well imagine how bad the economy (is).”

And on Twitter, Subramanian Swamy, parliamentarian from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said: “This deal is wholly anti-national, and I will (be) forced to go to court. We cannot sell our family silver.”

Monday’s document gave the deadline for submission of initial expressions of interest in purchasing the airline as March 17. In 2018, the Indian government tried to sell 76 percent of the carrier but got no takers.

To justify the latest sale attempt, Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, said: “Despite infusing 30,500 crore rupees ($4.3 billion) in AI (Air India) since 2012, the airline has been running into losses year after year. Due to its accumulated debt of about 60,000 crore rupees, its financial position is very fragile.”

He described the company as being in a “debt trap” but added that it could be saved through privatization. “We have learnt lessons from the 2018 bid.”

Referring to critical comments from fellow BJP members, the minister said they were expressing their “personal opinion.”

Jitender Bhargava, former executive director of corporate communication at Air India, said the current offer would attract potential buyers.

“India is a growth market, so anybody would like to be part of it and take the advantage. The acquisition of Air India provides the fastest way to become a global carrier,” he told Arab News.

According to Bhargava, the move had nothing to do with the current state of the Indian economy. “All the important international carriers want to expand their footprints in India because of the potential of the Indian market. The government has taken a pragmatic view on the sale of the national carrier,” he said.

“Ownership of the airline does not matter, leadership matters. Once it came into the hands of the government, bureaucracy killed it,” added Bhargava, who authored “The Descent of Air India” chronicling the airline’s downfall. “Air India under the government’s ownership cannot run, cannot survive.”

He predicted that the carrier would become a marginal player if there was no change in ownership.

Air India has a fleet of 146 aircraft and employs around 21,000 people. It was founded by prominent industrialist J.R.D. Tata in 1932 and nationalized in 1953.