Will Russia's latest failure to deliver a key component derail the International Space Station?
When the United States and its allies inked a bargain in 1993 to collaborate with Russia on the construction of a huge International Space Station, it seemed to be a good deal all around. Russia's space program had developed some of the most powerful workhorse rockets ever launched and had lofted the Mir space station. Its cosmonauts had logged the most hours for humans in space. Meanwhile, the U.S. had built its rugged little fleet of space shuttles that could ferry crews and supplies into orbit. What was not factored into the equation was whether the struggling Bear would be able to hold up its end of the bargain. Delays by the cash-strapped Russians forced the scheduled first launch to slip from November 1997 to June 1998, then again to the current date of November 20. Now, with Russia in the midst of an economic meltdown, the scheduled construction startup is once again threatened because it appears that Russia's Space Agency will be unable to complete the critical module that contains living quarters in time for its planned launch in the spring of 1999. Indeed, some observers believe the situation has deteriorated so badly that the future of the entire project--which also involves member countries of the European Space Agency, Canada, Japan and Brazil--is in jeopardy.
To bail out its partner and head off additional delays that could dash the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's dream of an international orbiting platform for space exploration and commercialization, an anxious agency on September 22 asked Congress and the White House to approve buying an additional $660 million of Russian space services and technology over the next five years. But even that may have come too late. On September 28, top U.S. and Russian space officials were scheduled to meet in Moscow to consider changes to the launch schedule.
Plans call for constructing the space station over a period of about five years. At its projected completion in January 2004, the station--soaring about 220 miles above the Earth and visible from the ground--would cover an area equal to two football fields. The most ambitious science project ever undertaken, it would carry a price tag of about $40 billion. The various components would be either blasted into space on Russian rockets or ferried into orbit and linked together by crews flying U.S. space shuttles. Overall, the construction would require 43 flights, two less than originally planned. By the end of 1998, more than a half-million pounds of station components will have been built by the participating nations.
The first two elements are ready to fly. The initial piece of this giant erector set, a control module called Zarya, is awaiting a November 20 ride on a Soviet Proton rocket at Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan. This 20-ton pressurized spacecraft, contracted by Boeing but built in Russia, will provide orbital control, communications and power for the next arrival, the U.S.-built Unity Node. As construction proceeds, its solar panels will provide power and ground communications. Later, it will provide storage space and its fuel tanks will continue to be used.
Unity, which is all set to go at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is slated to join Zarya in orbit in December. Built by Boeing, it is a connecting tunnel that will allow large exterior structures to be connected to the growing space station. The node will serve as a passageway to the U.S. laboratory, living quarters and an airlock. Unity is slated to be trucked into orbit by the shuttle Endeavor and linked to Zarya in a mission that could take up to 11 days.
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