The incomplete third piece is the first totally-Russian component--the Service Module. A luxury version of the main section of the Mir space station with plenty of windows and individual crew compartments, the 43 foot-long capsule will be the residential address of the first astronauts to occupy the space station, now scheduled for July 1999. It will remain as living quarters when the station is complete.
But the service module will serve another more important function: until the crew arrives, its thrusters will keep the entire complex aloft, boosting it higher as its orbit decays. Without timely docking to the Service Module, the first two pieces of the station will be unable to maintain altitude for an extended period of time. NASA is reluctant to go ahead with the launch of the initial components until it is certain that the service module will arrive on time.
Right now, it looks extremely doubtful that the Russians will be ready for the planned April launch of the service module. Reuters news service reported that Sergei Gorbunov, spokesman for the Russian Space Agency, said that "According to my information the first crew will go in the year 2000, not earlier. Perhaps it will be at the end of 1999."
Observers have questioned whether Moscow has the resources to build even the booster rockets required for the space station program. Initially, Russia promised 33 rockets to deliver supplies and fuel to the station but it now says it can deliver only about half that number. On September 25, it postoned a supply mission to its Mir station because no booster was available.
All these snafus delay the U.S. for reasons that go beyond the station project itself. NASA was counting on the program to keep its costly fleet of shuttles flying. With the space station stalled, NASA is scrambling to line up payloads to occupy the now empty launch slots. Then there are the political considerations. By commingling with the Russian space program, the U.S. has gained access to the best of its technology, facilities and talent. With U.S. support, Russian rocket scientists will have employment and salaries--which might persuade them not to accept job offers from countries whose interest is more militaristic than scientific.
With the two former enemies' space programs now so interlocked, NASA's strategy is to cut Moscow some slack by pumping more cash into Russian coffers--$150 million a year, enough to cover half of Moscow's costs for the project. But critics charge that the agency is throwing good money after bad. NASA has already paid Russia more than $700 million for space station related projects, according to Congressional experts. And, to keep the space station project moving, NASA has raided its own $13.6 billion annual budget by siphoning funds from other projects. "NASA needs to stop draining other vital programs to feed the space station's voracious hunger for more money," editorialized Space News, an aerospace trade publication.
No one seems quite sure whether to blame Russia or NASA for the impending crisis, but critics wasted no time weighing in on the latest delays. Since almost nothing is ever new on Capitol Hill, the litany carried with it a sense of deja vu. There were calls to "Dump Russia" that echoed an opening statement at a NASA budget hearing by House Science Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner in April 1997 that began with the words "I told you so."