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Space Station Bogs Down (ABC, October 1, 1998)

By Jim Oberg

Special to ABCNEWS.com

Oct. 1 — In the cavernous vehicle assembly building at the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan, Russian engineers are bringing a spaceship to life.

Step by step, they charge its batteries, fill and pressurize its coolant loops, and load and test the flight software. On Oct. 7, they’re scheduled to begin loading the highly toxic rocket propellants into its tanks.

Photo: The U.S. TransHab would serve as living quarters for the International Space Station. The lower level contains a wardroom and galley; the second level includes crew quarters; and the third level has equipment for the crew’s hygiene and exercise. (Marco Doelling/ABCNEWS.com)

This 20-ton module, the first piece of the International Space Station, will provide early power and propulsion. The FGB (for functional cargo block) was recently renamed Zarya, the Russian word for “dawn,” and the original name of Russia’s first space station 27 years ago.

NASA leads an international alliance that’s spending $20 billion to build this orbital outpost, designed to last at least 15 years while conducting revolutionary research. Five years ago, Russia joined the project in a move that NASA claimed would save the project billions of dollars and years of work.

But after the Russians were given critical sections to build, they failed to complete them on time. Now the entire project teeters on the edge of collapse.

If anything delays the launch of this first module much beyond the planned Nov. 20 blastoff, costly procedures are needed to deactivate the spaceship.

Such threats of delay hang over the mission. The U.S.-funded and Russian-built Zarya is ready for launch, and represents the highest standards of traditional Soviet-era space craftsmanship. But funding woes in Moscow have delayed every planned Russian launching for the International Space Station.

Zarya May Solo Awhile

There’s a real chance that once Zarya (and a companion module, the shuttle-launched Node-1, code-named Unity) reaches orbit, it could face a long wait for the next modules. Since it was only designed for a limited solo flight, it could run low on fuel or suffer equipment breakdowns that might endanger the entire project.

At a meeting in Moscow on Monday, Russian and American officials thrashed out the status of the delayed Russian modules. In particular, the crucial service module, which will serve as the early living quarters, is already months behind its planned April 1999 launch. Without it, it’s impossible for a crew to remain aboard the space station.

Although American officials wanted the Russians to commit to a date in July, chief spacecraft builder Yuri Semyonov refused. He told NASA that a reliable launch date could only be set after the service module’s construction was completed and shipped to Baikonur—next February at the earliest.

Semyonov urged NASA to proceed with the launch of Zarya even though nobody could make any promises about how soon afterward the next Russian module would be ready.

They’ll Be Late

The first three-man ISS crew had been planning to blast off in a Russian rocket in May 1999, a month after the service module attaches itself to the space station. With the module’s delay, that crew may not fly until late in 1999, if then.

NASA is developing about two dozen shuttle loads of hardware to complete the station, and the Russians had promised to deliver a dozen modules of their own, plus several dozen resupply flights. But at Monday’s meeting, the Russians told NASA they had been forced to stop work on all of the pieces after the service module.

Meanwhile, NASA has been quietly expanding its own shuttle schedule for the next two years to haul up equipment the Russians no longer could launch on their own.

What started as an initial sequence of six flights has already expanded to 10 (at $500 million each) and the first hasn’t even been launched yet.

Money remains the stumbling block. At the meeting in Moscow, the Russians recited a list of debts to various subcontractors, including to the cosmonaut training center at Star City, where ground simulators for crew training aren’t even expected to be ready until next summer.

Government Says Nyet

The Russian government not only refuses to release funds for the space station, it still demands the space industry pay it a 20 percent “delivery tax” for space hardware shipped to Moscow for installing in the service module.

NASA has suggested slipping the Russian Space Agency several hundred million dollars a year to prevent even more expensive delays. So far, though, the Clinton Administration has refused to go along with any extra funding.

Meanwhile at Baikonur, the bought-and-paid-for cornerstone of the real space station is in final preparation for launch less than two months from now.

Launch preparations are developing a momentum of their own—many observers believe it’s too late for anyone to summon enough courage to stop the flight now, since it would look like the entire project was being derailed.

Yet within NASA, and between NASA and its international partners, the debate rages over whether it would be a good idea to begin the assembly now while the future grows uncertain.

The debate will grow louder and more public as the countdown at Baikonur clicks away.


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