The New York Times January 27, 1997
Russia Is Fumbling Its Role in International Space Station


Problems with Russia's space program have delayed its main contribution to the proposed international space station, endangering the entire project, some experts say.

The Russian module is a centerpiece of the orbiting outpost, which involves 15 nations and is expected to cost at least $50 billion and be the size of a football field. The station is meant to symbolize, and help foster, a new era of East-West accord and is an important part of the Clinton administration's Russia policy. It is also NASA's biggest and most politically complex project.

But the cash-poor Russians have now fallen nearly a year behind schedule in building a module that is vital to the station's success.

So in an emergency move, NASA decided early this month to build a stopgap module in the United States that will enable the station plans to go forward, even though the date for astronauts to move into the station would be pushed back. NASA is racing to contain the political damage while redoing the station plan.

"The danger of its unraveling is great," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., who recently became chairman of the House Science Committee, in an interview.

The plan calls for the orbiting outpost to be built in stages by 15 nations, replacing Cold-War hostilities with a new kind of global teamwork. That work is to begin late this year.

The first two modules, financed by the United States, are to be sent aloft in November and December. In the original plan, a module financed by Russia was to have been flown into space in April 1998, followed by numerous other components until the end of construction in 2002. The now-delayed Russian module is meant to provide life support for astronauts as well as stability and propulsion for the orbital complex, keeping it from tumbling out of control or falling back to Earth.

Incensed at the delay, Sensenbrenner said that if Russia was still withholding the payments for its space program at the end of February, the station team should ask the Russians to leave as full partners, letting them serve only as subcontractors paid to do specific jobs.

"If Russia continues to fail to fulfill its obligations," he said, "it will shake the political and financial underpinnings of the station."

The issue is high on the agenda of Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who are to meet early next month in Washington. Sensenbrenner said he planned to hold hearings on the station's fate right after that meeting.

While NASA officials concede that there has been considerable turmoil, they insist that the basic East-West partnership is sound, if frayed, and that the project is nowhere near collapse. The sprawling outpost can be built on budget and on time and can include Russia, they say.

NASA itself can ride out violent political storms because the agency, as a major source of funds for aerospace contractors, has many powerful allies in Congress.

"From the day we started with the Russians, it has been the perils of Pauline," said Daniel Goldin, the NASA administrator, in an interview, noting that previous problems had been solved and saying that would be the case again. "I feel we're going to build it with them," he said. "I feel it in my bones."

Despite that, NASA is preparing for the worst. It is studying a second makeshift component, or a modification of the first one, that would give the station long-term stability, even if the Russian module never shows up.

In a bold step, the first stopgap piece for NASA is to be made out of military spy gear, which would apparently be the first such diversion to a civilian program. That means that orbital equipment designed to help Americans spy on Russia will now aid the Russians as they struggle to get their technological house in order.

The station's current troubles are part of a pattern of new stresses between the United States and Russia, including friction over issues like NATO's expansion and nuclear disarmament. To some degree, the project's fate is a hostage to wider political currents.

Even so, American shuttles and the Russian Mir space station have succeeded in linking up flawlessly in a series of warm-up missions in the past two years. The fourth American astronaut to stay on the Mir is now aboard the Russian outpost for a four-month visit.

The recent problems might delay the first permanent habitation of the international space station by a half-year or so, pushing back that milestone from May 1998 to December 1998 and perhaps to early 1999, when the Russian module might make it into space. That 43-foot-long, 23-ton cylinder, or something like it, is essential if astronauts are to live and work in orbit.

John Pike, head of space policy at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington, said the prospect of Russia's dropping out of the program was "a distinct possibility in terms of the general drift of Russian-American relations."

But he predicted that the station project would survive a Russian departure because thousands of jobs, contracts and political deals depended on it around the world.

"It's going to be the biggest construction program since the pyramids," Pike said.

The push for a big Western space station began more than a decade ago during the Cold War as the Reagan administration sought to outdo Russia's feats in orbit, envisioning an outpost that was bigger and better. By 1990, the American station was seen as a staggering 508 feet long -- nearly the size of the Capitol in Washington. It was expected to cost up to $120 billion over 30 years.

After the Cold War, and after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, the White House ordered NASA to work with the Russians to design a smaller and cheaper outpost.

Goldin brokered a deal among congressional leaders and international partners to have Russia join the team, helping to transform the decade-old dream (on which American taxpayers had already spent $8 billion) into a top Clinton initiative.

Now the partnership includes Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Russia and America are the dominant players.

It will take more than 40 launchings from Asia and America to get all the station pieces into orbit. By 2002, the international space station -- which will weigh 470 tons and be 290 feet long and 356 feet wide -- is to house up to seven astronauts at a time. The station will be used to study the heavens and Earth and things like human physiology in orbit, all while moving through space at more than 17,000 mph.

One goal of the Clinton administration is to engage Russia in constructive space work in return for its ending such practices as the export of advanced rocket gear to developing countries.

The original pact with Russia was sweetened to a $400 million contract for space hardware and launching services. The United States saw that money as strengthening Russia's shaky space program as the Russians moved toward a market economy.

This priming of the pump is now resulting in the production of the first station component, a 21-ton, 41-foot-long core module known as the Functional Cargo Block. On schedule to be launched in November atop a Russian Proton rocket, it is primarily for storage and experiments and has no ability to provide astronauts with life support.

The second module is known as Node 1, a 18-foot-long cylinder built by Boeing Co. that will serve as a connecting link to the future American side of the station. An American space shuttle is to take it aloft in December.

It is the third element, known as the Service Module, that is in trouble. Being built by Krunichev, a Russian company, it was to have been launched by a Russian Proton rocket in April 1998 to provide the station's basic living quarters and propulsion.

But it is so far behind schedule that little more than its outer shell is complete, said Wilbur Trafton, NASA's associate administrator for space flight, who was in Russia last week for talks.

In an interview from Moscow, Trafton said NASA had decided in early January, after much debate, to switch to an Interim Control Module, which has rocket engines for station propulsion and will be made by the Naval Research Laboratory from a rocket-booster system meant to deploy spy satellites.

The new control system will cost less than $100 million, Trafton said. But it will also require a space shuttle flight into orbit, which will cost $500 million or so. He said the new unit might be ready to go by the spring or fall of 1998.

The switch to the Navy design is reported in the Jan. 20 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology, an industry journal.

Since the Interim Control Module, as currently envisioned, could position and stabilize the new station for only a year or so, until its fuel ran out, NASA is also studying other options, including a more costly supplementary vehicle it calls the Propulsion Module, which would be fully refuelable. Under current plans, neither module could provide life support services for astronauts.

In theory, an international space station with a Propulsion Module, and with added life-support gear, could be refueled by a modified space shuttle and be free of any dependence on Russian gear.

"We can't bet on the Service Module," Trafton said. But he added, as did Goldin, that he still believed that the Russians would eventually succeed in getting the delayed component into orbit.

Yuri Koptev, the director of the Russian Space Agency, said last week in Moscow that he hoped the Russian government would soon allocate funds for the station work.

"If the appropriations are delayed again," Koptev told the Itar-Tass news agency, "foreign partners might raise the question of excluding Russia from the project."