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.

Launch 2: Unity Node

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.

Launch 3: Service Module

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.

Image: NASA
EMPTY LAUNCH PAD at Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan awaits the Proton rocket that will loft the first section of the International Space Station, now scheduled for November 20.

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."

Sensenbrenner went on to state, "We all know the history of Russia's role in the International Space Station. Empty promise after empty promise. Broken pledge after broken pledge. Delay after delay. This program will be further delayed and cost even more if NASA and the White House do not do now what should have been done three years ago -- which is to remove the Russian government from the critical path." And almost every year, at least one Congressman has introduced legislation to cut off funding for the project.

This time around, House Speaker Newt Gingrich took NASA to task at a press conference on September 25 by accusing the agency of " slowing down the rate in which we've gotten into space" and "making space as boring as possible." The Georgia Republican also said the space station situation "is an absolute disaster...... in large part because this administration got off to a feel-good, manage-bad model."


Should the U.S. bail out Russia one more time or remove it from the space station program?

Is NASA responsible for the crisis?

Should the entire project be abandoned?

The one deadline that Russia now seems committed to keeping is to scuttle its creaky Mir space station, now essentially a joint U.S.-Russia project, next spring after 12 years in orbit. Earlier, Moscow had proposed extending Mir's lifetime for an additional six months because of the lagging space station. But on September 25, the Russian Space Agency's Gorbunov said that "whatever happens, Mir will definitely be brought down in the middle of 1999." The Russians plan to nudge Mir out of orbit and let it burn up over the oceans during reentry.

Mir's planned fiery demise will mark the end of humanity's longest tenure in space so far but it may be a mixed blessing. Many consider the aged station to be an accident waiting to happen and the removal of its financial burden may free up some scarce cash for the international space station.

Clearly, things have not turned out quite the way NASA space station program manager Randy Brinkley envisioned last January when he stated that "the year of the international space station is 1998" as the Zarya module began its journey from the assembly plant in Moscow to Baikonur for a June launch. Today, a clock on NASA's space station website continues to count down the days toward the scheduled November 20 liftoff, and a press release invites reporters to cover the increasingly unlikely event.