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space shuttle



October 7, 1998

10:00 am - 12:00 noon

2318 Rayburn House Office Building

Washington, D.C.



James Oberg


Good morning. I am pleased to be able to raise some independent issues about

the Russian space partnership for the International Space Station.

I want to address the following points:

-- Russia's inability to fulfill its promises is NOT due to any temporary

conditions which will easily go away;

-- as we get closer to first launch, the wobbly assembly strategy is a clear

warning that something is fundamentally wrong;

-- based on recent actual Russian spacecraft experience, alarm bells should

be ringing about the reliability of the latest promises that the Service

Module is "almost finished" and nearly ready to fly;

-- NASA overestimates the effectiveness of massive cash infusions into the

Russian space industry, in part because of deliberate blindness towards ample

evidence of corruption;

-- recent Russian attempts to prolong the life of Mir for another two or more

years would violate promises to NASA and would shatter any hope of adequate

Russian launch support for ISS;

-- every promised benefit of bringing on the Russians as ISS partners has

collapsed, including the idea of making the project faster and better and

cheaper, and the hope that it would forestall the flow of Russian missile

technology into rogue states;

-- the rush to launch the first elements six weeks from now is an attempt to

prevent proper independent assessment of the new situation, and amounts to

holding the future of the US space program hostage to continuing a failed


After consistently being wrong about Russia's ability to fulfill its space

promises, NASA still clings to the hope that the problem with our relationship

is only superficial, only temporary, and that there's light at the end of the

tunnel. In previous years, we were told that full financing would surely come

after the end of the Chechen War, or after the presidential runoffs, or after

the presidential elections, or after this or that new treaty or new summit

meeting or new Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission session. And it never, ever did.

But the lack of Russian government funding for ISS is not the result of the

current financial crisis, as has been claimed. It is instead the policy set

more than a year ago when the Russian Space Agency was told to take bank loans

and sell off its assets to obtain required funds. The Russian government has

not simply NOT paid the required money, it has demanded -- incredibly -- that

IT receive money FROM the Russian Space Agency in the form of value-added

taxes ("delivery taxes") on space hardware that the Russian Space Agency has

somehow managed to fund.

Certainly, we know from history that all major new space projects prove more

difficult than expected. But there is a fundamental difference between what it

looked like as we approached the first flight of Apollo, or Skylab, or

Shuttle, and the way things are shaping up as we approach the International

Space Station. For those previous programs, the complexities and difficulties

often required major adjustments in design or schedules. But because of the

quality of technological management, those difficulties were confronted and

solved well in advance of the final countdowns.

For example, although the space shuttle marched in place for almost two years

at the Launch Minus Twelve Months point, once all the pieces fell into place

those last months proceeded almost without pause toward a successful launch.

But for ISS, the closer we seem to get to launch, the more the pieces are

falling apart, the greater the uncertainty is about critical downstream

support. This should tell us something about the technological and management

inadequacies that must be repaired before committing any hardware to flight.

Using the wrong metrics is another source of problems. For example, measuring

the completion of spacecraft in general, and of the Service Module in

particular, by weight of installed hardware is silly. Two years ago we were

told the module was 90% complete, now it's supposed to be 98% complete with

only a few systems missing. But as NASA has been told, those are often

critical systems from contractors that in some instances no longer even

manufacture such hardware (for example, the Solid Fuel Oxygen Generator, which

caused the near-fatal fire in February 1997 for which the Russians have STILL

not provided NASA the final accident report). There remains a great deal of

assembly work to be done that remains out of sight and out of mind for NASA.

And software, one of the most notorious "long poles" in the ISS tent, weighs

nothing, so its impact on work-yet-to-be-done gets slighted in this

measurement scheme. Compare these claims with that from a manager of the ill-

fated "Lewis" spacecraft who testified that the vehicle was 95% complete, even

before a contract had been signed to produce the flight software.

Let's also not judge the Service Module's likely completion process by the

smooth schedule we saw for the FGB. That module was amply funded and was built

by a healthy, highly motivated organization. But things are different for the

Service Module. A better analogy for a highly complex Russian spacecraft being

built by a bankrupt space organization would be the Mars-96 probe. Two years

ago, after years of delay, of cutting corners, of appeals for foreign

financial support, of corruption scandals, and finally of frantic work to meet

an interplanetary launch window, this most sophisticated ever Russian

spacecraft was launched towards Mars, and promptly failed.

By the way, it's interesting to note how international diplomacy has

interfered with accurate assessments of safety issues in this case (as in

others). To this day, space officials in Moscow and Washington BOTH prefer to

believe that the off-course probe and its eighteen plutonium batteries fell

harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean, when the best evidence is that the wreckage

is on dry ground in the Andes Mountains near the Chile-Bolivia border.

Pretending otherwise is an abdication of responsibility to the health of the

local population -- but it's convenient, and doesn't threaten to embarrass the


More relevant to the Service Module's future, and to the future of the ISS,

the Mars-96 accident investigation team was led by the same Professor Utkin

who assists the Stafford Commission on assessing the safety of Russian

spacecraft. After months of work, Utkin's team reportedly failed to find ANY

reason for Mars-96 to have failed, even with the knowledge that it already HAD

failed. This does not encourage our hope that these same experts can

accurately assess the future reliability of the Service Module, now being

assembled under conditions just as bad as those which doomed Mars-96.

There are plenty of other things about our Russian partners that NASA has

simply not wanted to see, or has even wanted NOT to see. For example, NASA has

made certain that evidence of corruption within the Russian space industry

would not distract its decision makers. Regarding these notorious cosmonaut

mansions at Star City -- which some White House experts still blindly dismiss

as merely "allegations" -- within NASA it was a strict rule NOT to see or

mention them. When one NASA official was outraged enough to describe them in a

trip report, he was ordered to rewrite and resubmit the report after deleting

mention of the mansions. Other NASA workers at Star City have told me that it

was made clear to them all that any overt interest in these houses would be

severely "career limiting". Such a policy makes it easier for higher officials

to act surprised and incredulous when confronted with independent evidence for

such diversion of funds.

Another potential surprise is connected with the fate of the Mir space

station. Fortified with spare parts ferried up on NASA shuttles, the Mir has

flown on recently with less visible troubles than last year. But since the

Russians can only build about five or six Soyuz and Progress vehicles, the

kind which support Mir and which will support the ISS, any continuation of Mir

beyond next year threatens to divert irreplaceable resources from ISS. So

under intense NASA pressure, the Russians agreed to de-orbit the Mir in June


But many Russian space officials objected to this capitulation to NASA

interests and advocated keeping Mir open for at least two years more -- which

would require numerous additional Soyuz and Progress support flights. In

recent weeks, these wishes have been transformed into active negotiations with

Western financiers to prolong Mir's lifetime. Yuri Maslyukov, Russia's First

Deputy Prime Minister and a protégé of the new prime minister Gennadiy

Primakov, has reportedly led this effort, with support from space-hopping

Kremlin aide Yuriy Baturin and from Energia Corporation officials such as V.

Nikitskiy and Valeriy Ryumin (NASA generously gave Ryumin a courtesy Mir visit

flight on a shuttle last June -- he came back determined to repudiate Russian

promises about terminating Mir). Further, some recent repair work on Mir

doesn't seem to make much sense except as preparation for extending its

lifetime beyond the promised termination date.

Now, here's the rub. The latest ISS manifest released last week by NASA shows

nine Soyuz and Progress flights by Russia in the year 2000 (plus a tenth Soyuz

launch of a modified Progress carrying an ISS module), all to ISS. So if there

is ANY extension of Mir's lifetime to 2000 and beyond, the new NASA plans must

go the way of all previous plans, onto the scrap heap.

Let's step further back and view the big picture. It's clear that every

promise made for the value of the Russian partnership when NASA sold the idea

to the White House back in 1993 has collapsed. The idea that it would be

quicker and cheaper was incredible to experts even in 1993, to everyone, that

is, but NASA experts.

Meanwhile, NASA continues to use creative bookkeeping to conceal the billions

of dollars of extra costs associated with the Russian partnership. One such

cost is what I call the "Russian Access Tax" that the US will have to pay on

EVERY shuttle launch to carry cargo to an orbit northerly enough for the

Russians to reach -- a loss of a large fraction of the shuttle's cargo

carrying capacity. Now, it's true NASA has enhanced this capacity to make up

for these losses, but those same improvements could also be applied to more

convenient orbits as well. In practical terms, this means that four shuttle

flights are required to carry the same cargo to the "Russian orbit" that three

flights could carry to a more efficient orbit. Over the life of the ISS, with

more than a hundred shuttle flights expected, about a quarter of them -- ten

billion dollars worth or more -- are required merely to allow the Russians to

be partners.

Also, the idea that pouring money into the Russian space industry could

prevent 'missile mischief' with rogue states has turned out to be another

illusion. Hundreds of thousands of rocket engineers in Russia have been laid

off over the past decade (particularly from military missile plants) and there

never were more than a few hundred free-lance employment opportunities

overseas anyway. The abundance of available Russian rocket experts for hire

abroad is shown by the relatively low price they can demand -- according to

Russian journalist Evgeniya Albats, about $200 cash per month. And that

doesn't even count full-scale contracts with Russian space corporations.

And how about all of the wonderfully valuable "Russian space experience" that

we hear lip service to? NASA has shown instead that it has to learn things

again on its own, such as on Shuttle-Mir, which caught NASA by surprise time

and time again. And in the end, we must ask, if Russia's experience with space

stations was so valuable to NASA, why is NASA again in such a space station


What is to be done now? I suggest that instead of clinging reflexively to

remnants of a strategy which is growing more and more threatened at many

points, we concentrate on the important goal of getting a fully outfitted US

Lab module operational as soon as possible. Past plans and past expenditures

are, in the phrase used by pilots, "runway behind us". We have to get from

where we are NOW to where we want to be.

Meanwhile, putting the FGB and US Node into orbit now, before a serious

reevaluation of the program can be carried out, is an attempt to hold the

entire US manned space program hostage to a failed strategy. The "rush" is on

to prevent deliberative investigation of the changed circumstances vis-a-vis


There are symbolic, stylistic, and substantive steps that can be taken.

Symbolically, if the Russians are selling us all their research time for the

next few years, and it's US money which is keeping the entire project on

track, the station crew commanders for this phase should all be Americans. For

flight two and four, cosmonauts had been designated to be in command. Under

the changed circumstances, that decision should be changed.

In terms of style, NASA has proven itself incapable of learning from anyone

else's experience with dealing with Russian partners, and even has great

difficulty getting its own internal experience to the people who need it. This

is a problem with leadership. If there are people at NASA with an unbroken

track record of being wrong about Russian developments, the obvious fix is to

replace them.

In terms of substance, the mindless momentum toward an FGB/Node launch based

on the same illusory hopes for future Russian support, hopes that have been

dashed year after year after year, should be reconsidered, if not by NASA than

by those who can influence NASA. There should be an immediate independent

assessment of the actual cost of delaying the FGB/Node launch by up to six


Experience should have taught us that before committing hardware to space

flight -- a very hostile place full of unpleasant surprises -- we should

minimize surprises back on Earth. At the very least, the Service Module and

OTHER downstream Russian support hardware must be certified "on track" by some

independent evaluation, and the threat of Mir-related diversions must be

ended, most reliably by the termination of that program. Such steps could take

several months. Until such steps are taken, I consider it foolhardy to

deliberately enhance programmatic risk -- and our vulnerability to future

blackmail -- by launching the first elements.

At the same time, a credible, independent assessment must finally be made of

the "no-Russian" option. We've heard the official claims that it would cost

billions more, but those claims are from people who are overlooking billions

and billions of dollars of operational expenses which are required for -- and

only for -- keeping the Russians aboard. These same experts have consistently

misjudged schedule and cost and quality benefits attributed to Russian

participation, and it seems to me they deserve no further credibility from

the public and from Congress.

Until we take such reality-based steps, I am concerned that NASA's long record

of being repeatedly caught by surprise by new Russian problems will continue

unbroken into the next century, at immense cost to the American space program

and to the hopes of all of us who wish it to succeed.

Thank you for this opportunity to present these ideas.



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