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The Russian Space Partnership: Promises and Perils
James Oberg
Remarks Delivered at the James Baker Institute for Public Affairs,
Rice University, Houston, Texas, November 11, 1999

Today is the eve of the launching of Russia's "Service Module", the key component of the International Space Station that will make the embryonic outpost habitable by long-term crews. Or at least, until a few months ago, the official launch date of the module's Proton booster was tomorrow.

But as NASA and the Russian Aerospace Agency, RASA, plunged toward that magic point on the calendar, each knew it was a cosmic bluff, and each was waiting for the other to flinch and ask for a slip.

And it had already slipped "by a few weeks" even before the latest Proton rocket failure at Baykonur. Realistic assessments by outsiders put a new launch date as "no earlier than" (NET) June of 2000, more than two years past the program's original schedule. NASA internally is still working towards a "March 2000" date.

This scheduling problem is just one item in a bigger picture that I want to address today. How is the technology of space related to the diplomacy of Earth? In particular, where did this partnership with Russia come from, and where is it going? What did we hope to get from it, and what have been the actual results? What hidden costs have appeared? And what can we do next, to get to where we want to be from where we actually are, illusions and good intentions aside?

Delays in a high-tech space program are not particularly shameful, even though this particular step in the International Space Station isn't even one of the later, harder ones (the module is an upgrade of the basic Mir block which was launched in 1986). But where NASA and RASA have failed is in their pursuit of counterfeit schedules and false dates, a management style that creates panic and unnecessary short-cuts among the workers trying to meet unrealistic deadlines.

A simple comparison with schedule slips in the Apollo program and the Space Shuttle development shows a glaring contrast.

Managers in both earlier programs were faced with daunting technological challenges, both needing space engineering advances far outstripping the requirements of the first few years of the ISS. There were major delays -- even, in the Apollo program, catastrophes and loss of life -- as the program neared the time of actual flight.

It got harder and harder "to get the ducks in a row" (as NASA engineers colorfully describe the process of launch preparation), but when all factors were finally judged ready, they in fact WERE ready.

Flight experience demonstrates the success of program management on these two programs. From the time of the first manned Apollo orbital flight in October 1968, it was only nine months until the attainment of the program goal of a manned lunar landing and return. And from the point in March 1980 when the shuttle program stopped "marching in place" and officially pushed past the official "L-12" (launch minus twelve months), it took only thirteen months to fly a perfect first orbital flight of 'Columbia'. This experience validated the program management of both projects in getting all their ducks to line up properly.

In glaring contrast, the closer we get to actually trying to fly ISS elements, the wider the ducks are scattering. Intensive efforts must be expended to "chase these ducks" while pretending that announced launch dates are viable.

Several factors lie behind this contrast, but the most obvious is the overwhelming political and diplomatic significance of the Russian partnership.

Certainly, diplomatic goals are no stranger to motivating space programs. Apollo was conceived in an era of sharp Washington-Moscow rivalry to mainly restore faith in the superiority of Western technology over Soviet challenges. The shuttle involved profound cooperation with the European Space Agency (the Spacelab module), with Canada (the robot arm), with Japan, and with other nations.

Yet with ISS, diplomacy seems to have so dominated design that the program has no technological keel to maintain an even course. In real engineering, "form follows function" -- your requirements influence what you build. But with this project, requirements have never been adequately defined and design features are often based only on accident, whim, or esthetics.

No feature of the International Space Station better illustrates this triumph of image over reality than the "FGB" module, now in space (with an attached US "Node" module) as the cornerstone of the future station. From the beginning, the primary purpose of this US-funded and Russian-manufactured twenty-ton module was "proper symbolism".

The logical assembly sequence of a modular humanned space station is to send up the control and habitation sections first, get a long-term crew on board, and then gradually build up the operational capabilities by adding on laboratory and power units. This was the philosophy of Mir (and of its testbed precursor, Salyut-7). This was the original philosophy of Skylab and of Space Station Freedom.

But once the Russians became partners, and the US "Habitation Module" got slipped way, way down the assembly sequence, the use of a modified Russian "Mir-2" vehicle for the initial habitation and control functions was accepted (this became the "Service Module"). However, launching it FIRST and then hooking pieces to it sequentially (the logical way) would have given the appearance of the US functioning merely as an adjunct to a baseline Russian facility. NASA deemed this unacceptable for domestic US politics.

Enter the FGB, a short term (eighteen month design lifetime) vehicle which would stabilize an inert US module ("Node-1") and then would fly over to, and dock to, the Russian "Service Module" once it was launched a few month later. The core of the station would then be assembled, and there would have been a US flag (admittedly, a small one, about 10 cm high) on it from the beginning.

But now we see how counterfeit schedules and international bluffs have created a dangerous trap for the project. For NASA in 1997-8, it was imperative to get hardware "in the air" as soon as possible, even though all information from Russia pointed to greater and greater delays in the Service Module fabrication. These indications were ignored in the light of US domestic political realities -- another major delay could arouse renewed opposition to the Russian partnership and even the entire project.

Hence the launch of the FGB -- now renamed "Zarya" by the Russians, even though the US was and still is the nominal owner -- in November 1998 on what had originally been planned as a mission lasting only a few months. It's now been in space for a full year (the anniversary passed without any NASA commemoration, a sure sign of the agency's ex post facto embarrassment at launching so prematurely), doing nothing except age, decay, and from time to time dodge space junk.

During this year-long cruise, two of the FGB's six batteries have failed, even after they were serviced on the lone shuttle visit to the station in June. One of the two Kurs rendezvous antennas, critical to the future SM docking, also seems to have broken. Further breakdowns before the next shuttle visit (now optimistically set for March 2000) could actually threaten the entire vehicle's survival.

NASA's experts alone among world space specialists continue to profess innocent amazement over the Russian delays and setbacks. To many outside observers, it seems clear that correct assessments of Russian space capabilities were never even desired by NASA managers, who had other goals first and foremost in mind all along.

When the Russians were invited to join the space station program in 1993, NASA had made a number of promises.

1. It would save time and money, and in fact would probably save the program from political cancellation;

2. It would allow American space engineers to learn from Russia's decades of experience with space station, and hence avoid past mistakes and make future hardware and operations more efficient than ever;

3. It would prop up the Russian space industry so it would not out of desperation sell services and technical secrets to "rogue states" building their own missiles to threaten the US and its allies;

4. It would symbolize the total reversal of the "Cold War" confrontation between Mocow and Washington, and would strengthen reformists within Russia to bring their society into the Western format;

5. It would foster the growth of mutual trust and respect, and influence popular culture into a more mellow view of Russia;

6. It would inspire even grander and deeper cooperative projects between Russia and the US for the benefit of the whole planet.

Six years on, even the most optimistic partisans of the Russian involvement have been forced to admit that the strategy has failed on every single point. The last ditch defense of the Russian involvement is that "it may still work, with more time and money", along with the brutal truism that "We have no other choice -- the station was redesigned so it's impossible to build without them".

This strategy has not only failed on each single point, but it threatens even greater failure if the International Space Station falters now due to inadequate Russian performance. Far from saving the project, Russian involvement could have doomed it. Let's revisit each of those six promises.

How about the promised savings?

Having the Russians involved has made the project cost more and take longer. And far more has been spent on this partnership than just the required extra billions and extra years needed to accommodate the Russian presence. NASA has squandered immense reserves of laboriously accumulated political "good will", both in the US Congress and among the mass media and the general public, and has been reduced to hand-waving "justifications de jour" for both the project and the Russian participation.

In addition, deceptive book-keeping has become a common gimmick. By not counting shuttle launch costs as part of the station budget, NASA can shift expenses by swapping hardware costs for "free launches", and make it look like a profit. Also, just using a Russia-accessible orbit (52 degree inclination) instead of the originally planned due-east-launch orbit (28-30 degrees) reduces each shuttle flight cargo capacity by 25%. This in turn requires a one third increase in total shuttle missions to carry the SAME amount of cargo to the ISS. Over the course of the station lifetime, that adds tens of billions of dollars of shuttle operational costs, a budgetary feature NASA does everything it can to hide.

How about the promised lessons to be learned and mistakes to be avoided?

Although this is the most often heard justification for the Shuttle-Mir program, where seven Americans spent a total of two years aboard the aging station, NASA's record here is at best mixed. Most of the boasted lessons from Mir are themes that NASA could more cheaply have learned by reviewing past experience in the Russian and American space stations, or are discoveries that the Russians made aboard Mir with no help from their American shipmates. Perhaps the most significant lesson of that project -- that NASA didn't really NEED the project to learn most of the "lessons", if it had only studied properly -- still eludes NASA.

How else can one understand NASA's treatment of people trying to alert it to useful lessons? One NASA manager, loaned to the Pentagon for two years, headed up the highly-successful program to obtain samples of Russian 'Topaz' nuclear reactors. Yet after performing this highly-sensitive effort on schedule and budget, when he returned to NASA and offered his experience to the space station office, he was rebuffed coldly (they said they would read his report) and he ultimately left NASA entirely.

Proper learning also requires proper teaching, and this means that the Russians must be honest and thorough in what they tell NASA about their space experience. Here, too, the failures are ominous. Two years before NASA was caught completely by surprise by the near-fatal fire aboard Mir, Russia had submitted hazard documents to NASA asserting there had never been any fires aboard Russian space stations. Despite the fact that unofficial reports and memoirs detailed at least a dozen, including one in November 1994 that involved the same hardware which again burst into flames in February 1997, NASA officials insisted that only official Russian documents -- and by no means any private independent sources -- could be used in its planning. Similar omissions -- to be blunt, outright falsifications -- characterized other official Russian reports to NASA on other types of space hazards, but directives from NASA HQ were that any data officially transmitted from Russia was not to be doubted.

How about the prevention of Russian technical assistance to military programs in rogue states?

Last year, the deep-digging Moscow journalist Yevgeniya Albats, who has specialized in past and present activities of the KGB and its successor organizations, interviewed a number of Russian rocket engineers on their way to Tehran on short-term consultations with the Iranian missile program. She found that they were paid about $200 per month for this work. This is on par with Russian domestic pay for space workers, and tells us very clearly that in Russia today it must be very easy to hire any "rocket scientists" that any foreign nation needs -- if not, the "street price" would be much much higher.

And how could it be otherwise? Hundreds of thousands of Russian rocket workers have lost their jobs as most military missile programs stopped. Meanwhile, the space engineers working on the International Space Station and other cooperative programs, for the most part, are specialists in manned space hardware, and so they know nothing about missile design and construction. Thus, helping them keep their jobs did nothing to prevent the easy availability of Russian rocket know-how overseas. Even if these space station experts lost their jobs and offered their services overseas, they wouldn't be relevant to the military missile programs under development.

If there is one semi-theoretical "rogue state" that has actually benefited enormously from the space partnership, it is the still-hypothetical future anti-Western Russia. Western money has quite literally saved the Russian space industry and infrastructure from total collapse. At the Baykonur launch site, Western money upgraded the airports, payload processing facilities, communications links, and other high-tech facilities, all ostensibly to allow the safer and more efficient processing of Western payloads, but all equally applicable to current and future Russian military space activities as well. NASA has equipped Russia's "Mission Control Center" with a vast array of modern computers. Similar investments in Russian rocket and spacecraft factories, and careless transfers of American hardware and software, has guaranteed that whatever space goals a future Russia chooses to pursue, it will have vastly enhanced capabilities, thanks to the West.

How about encouraging progressive trends in Russian domestic politics?

The US predilection for supporting "favorite" tyrants around the world -- from the Shah to Marcos to Somoza -- has repeatedly been a short term convenience and a long term disaster, and many analysts argue that US policy toward Yeltsin (in Russia) and Nazarbayev (in Kazakstan) will similarly "end in tears" following the inevitable departures of these leaders. In Russia, aside from the narrow Yeltsin family and from a handful of bureaucrats and space corporation executives involved in the cash flow from the West, there is practically no other support for the US space partnership, and its political survival in a post-Yeltsin era grows more doubtful by the day.

Part of the Russian popular disaffection with the partnership is no doubt due to wounded nationalistic pride to find themselves a junior partner in an enterprise in which they once led the world. This largely accounts for the groundswell of support -- in the mass media, in the parliament, and among almost every space veteran and expert -- to keep the 14-year-old Mir space station in operation long after officials had promised NASA it would be scrapped. Despite these promises, the possibility that Mir will be kept in operation for years to come is becoming more likely every day.

Near-universal corruption in Russia is the other burden which is dragging down the partnership. After years of pretending it wasn't there, US officials now assert that nobody could have expected it, and it hasn't affected the space partnership. And admittedly the Western money has indeed rented some good friends (money can't buy friends, despite the common claim, it can only rent them), who happen to be among the most isolated and disliked figures in the space industry.

After all, how could anyone even with the most superficial acquaintance with Russian culture not realize what would happen when upwards of a billion dollars a year were poured into the space industry? The effect is multiplied by the fact that, on orders of the US Commerce Department, the Russians overcharged for their services by several hundred percent. This left them with "space profits" amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars -- so much that it seems they are even having trouble storing it all, if the accidental discovery of a few million dollars in cash in a top rocket factory official's safe deposit box is any indication.

This surplus is easily understandable by comparing actual salaries of space workers, which are about twenty times higher in the West than in Russia. Thus, a rocket costing $100,000,000 to build in the US (most of the cost is labor) could be developed for somewhere between $5 and $10 million in Russia. Yet in order to protect US rocket vendors, the US allowed the Russians a "launch quota" if and only if they refrained from underselling their Western competitors by more than a few percent. They were forced to raise their prices, not to cover actual costs and reasonable profits, but to penalize potential Western customers and reduce the temptation to "stray" from domestic launch services.

As a result, the Russian space industry is drowning in dollars. The Russian government knows this -- it tries to tax all funds being sent to various industrial enterprises -- and so it is understandably reluctant to provide hard-earned Russian tax money for projects performed on behalf of Russia itself. These "excess profits" are several times as big as the entire official Russian government space budget. Meanwhile, key hardware items for the International Space Station are being starved.

The evidence for corruption within the space industry is widespread. There have been investigations and arrests of some government "space bureaucrats" (e.g., Oleg Soskovets, formerly Chernomyrdin's right-hand man for the space partnership) and officials at space factories (such as some chief engineers at the Babakin Institute which buils deep-space probes). There are the notorious "space cottages", half million dollar mansions built on a back corner of the Star City cosmonaut training center for managers whose official salaries couldn't even afford the garages. And these items have surfaced even without a formal investigation.

How about fostering the growth of mutual trust and respect?

As it has turned out, it will take a generation for Russia to live down the reputation it has earned in the West from the string of breakdowns while American astronauts were visiting Mir, and from the unbroken sequence of delays and setbacks in the preparation of ISS components. All but the most fanatic American space officials have come to realize that the Russian promises were worthless and the Russian-provided information was self-serving and often deliberately deceptive.

From the Russian side, the view of the 'space partnership' is only one facet of their universal disillusionment with Western influence in general since the collapse of the USSR. Appeals both to patriotism and practicality argue for continuing their own independent Mir space program, at any price up to and including withdrawal from the International Space Station.

One thing which has become more "mutual" is the shared exposure to dangers which once only the Russians were threatened with. American workers in Moscow are exposed to the same air and water that has been damaging the health of ordinary Russians for decades. They are also physically exposed to the same criminal assaults -- including assaults by police -- which for the sake of public opinion in the US, NASA has rigorously covered up. Lastly, they have become targets not only of anti-Western extreme Russian nationalists, but paradoxically also of their enemies, such as the secessionists in Chechnya and elsewhere -- so these days, American space workers in Russia ride in unmarked vans, live in protected enclaves, and are advised to "blend in" and not "go out alone". So much for fostering mutual respect and trust.

How about inspiring even grander and deeper cooperative projects?

With the ISS project as a shining example of how the Russians can be expected to actually perform if they are ever given a key role in any future international technological program, the next Westerner who makes such a proposal will be laughed out of the hemisphere. More modest and much more successful joint US-Russia activities have been overshadowed by this one big project, the one that was supposed to inspire future generations to believe in constructive cooperation of former enemies as an alternative to world tensions and wasteful duplications of efforts.

In particular, a glaring strategic NASA mistake was in deliberately designing the ISS program for "easy blackmail", by putting Russia "in the critical path" of the project's development. Congress accepted the partnership in 1993-4 with the explicit bipartisan proviso that it "enhance but not enable" the assembly of the station, and both NASA and the White House continuously assured Congress and the public that NASA had in-place contingency plans to replace any and all Russian contributions should they become unavailable.

Those promises turned out to be empty. Alternatives existed if at all only on paper, and even the much-vaunted "Interim Control Module" being built at the US Naval Research Laboratory turns out to be another clumsy bluff, a spacecraft too limited, too brittle, and too long in the development cycle to be there when it may actually really be needed.

The program's fundamental structure leaves no alternative to paying the Russians as much as they demand for their support, short of a three-year stand-down of station assembly (and of the Space Shuttle fleet) and a hat-in-hand petition to the US Congress for billions of dollars of supplemental funding. Faced with this fearsome prospect, American space officials chose instead to do what they have practiced for half a decade: hope for the best, hide from reality, and wait for miracles.

Aside from the wasted years and billions, probably the greatest cost of this space partnership is the wasted opportunity to realistically engage the Russian space program for genuine long-term cooperation. There was a wide range of options in the early 1990s, based on successful analogs of Antarctic research stations and of small well-defined space technology exchanges which succeeded. Commercial launch services -- "Sea Launch" is a shining example -- overcame technical and political difficulties to attain reasonable goals. None of this experience was utilized in the political formulation for the International Space Station.

What can be done now, to get from where we really are to where we want to be? There is a broad national consensus that a permanently manned space station should be the next US goal in space, and significant progress has been made in that direction.

First, the US should now and forevermore abandon the vain hope that the Russian government will adequately fund their promised contributions, either "after the next election", or "after the next war", or "under a new tsar". If their hardware is critical to the next several years of space assembly operations, it will be cheaper to pay them whatever it takes to rent their loyalty and cooperation while energetically developing genuine replacement hardware.

Second, a truly independent review team must be tasked to evaluate the courageous (and/or desperate) option of expelling the Russians entirely from the project before too much more expensive space hardware is sent up to what may be a "Dead End Station". Without the "Service Module" and the Soyuz space capsules, a permanently manned facility will be at least three years away, while replacement equipment is rushed to completion. But it could be in a much more efficient orbit, with much more efficient interfaces with remaining members of the team.

Analysts must keep in mind that the goal is NOT the "next" launch, or to preserve the reputations of space officials and political leaders who have been consistently wrong about forecasts of Russian performance, but to get a permanent manned station functioning reliably for years to come. If we realize we have advanced up a cul-de-sac, the most efficient progress will be a small backing up until the better path can be reached. Resources spent so far -- like chips thrown into a poker pot -- are no longer "ours", and only future expenses can be considered when evaluating alternative strategies.

Thirdly, commercial services and hardware can still be exploited -- it's where most of the money is going anyway -- but there should be stricter restraints on long-term upgrades and improvements inside the Russian space infrastructure. As much as possible, Western customers should retain control of key operating components of the facilities they build in Russia -- electronics spares, replacement filters and seals, other repair tools and spares, even operating and maintenance instructions -- so that any termination of commercial relations will lead to rapid degradation of the equipment left behind.

Fourthly, heighten the alertness of all Western participants in issues of technology transfer in all its forms.

Lastly, both for the practical and political benefits, genuine space partnerships on specific programs should be aggressively developed. A reliable foundation for such future cooperative programs is a good definition of what each side intends to bring to the table, and to gain at the table, plus genuine alternatives and well-defined criteria for selecting these alternatives. By avoiding dependency on either partner, the temptation for blackmail will be deflated.

We are a spacefaring nation because it is good for the United States, and we engage in international cooperation for the same reason. The benefits can be technical or diplomatic progress, advances in science or prestige, worldwide inspiration or astonishment -- or a combination of all these and more. Just because it is one of the most challenging activities ever undertaken by human beings, however, is no blank check for failure, no ready-made excuse for bad judgment, and no reason to stubbornly (and often selfishly) cling to patterns and policies which costly experience has now brought in the verdict on.


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