The Zvezda Service Module: Russia's Critical Mission

By Todd Halvorson
03 July 2000

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Half a world away on the arid steppes of central Asia, the near-term future of human destiny in space is at stake. Come July 12, a long-stalled bid to build a "city in space" is scheduled to resume in Kazakstan with the pivotal launch of the central command post for the vacant International Space Station.

If all goes well, the $400 million mission will resuscitate a comatose construction project aimed at erecting a sprawling space complex that would give the Free World a foothold in Earth orbit. But if the long-overdue Russian Service Module crashes and burns, a 16-nation effort to build the $60 billion station could tumble out of control, plunging to a turbulent political death in the midst of its infancy.

"Failure would be catastrophic," said Elliot Pulham, executive vice president of the United States Space Foundation, an advocacy group based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"It would probably be the death of the space station program," added David Webb, a space policy analyst who served on President Reagan's National Commission on Space while the project was still on the drawing board. "I mean, this is the fundamental center of the station, and construction cannot continue without it. And I don't see that anybody in the U.S. Congress is going to want a three-year hiatus on top of the multi-year hiatus that we've already had, or that they are prepared to pay for it," he said. "So a failure would be disastrous."

A joint project of space agencies in the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, Canada and Brazil, the International Space Station is envisioned by its architects as a world-class research center that ultimately will span an area as large as a New York City block. Circling some 250 miles (400 kilometers) above the planet, the international outpost is expected to sport six laboratories for scientific experiments and a can-shaped dormitory for rotating, seven-member research crews. The start-up of station construction came in late 1998 with back-to-back launches of a Russian space tug dubbed "Zarya," or "Sunrise," and an American docking module named "Unity."

The project since then, however, largely has been on hold. The reason: Full-scale construction cannot continue until the $340 million Russian Service Module - dubbed "Zvezda," or "Star" - is launched up to the fledgling station. Already more than two years behind schedule because of Russian economic and rocket problems; Zvezda is an upgraded model of the Mir space station's core laboratory. Once in orbit, Zvezda's solar arrays will deploy and immediately begin following the sun.

A mini-outpost unto itself, Zvezda will serve as the initial command and control center at the international station. It is about the size of a standard construction site trailer and is outfitted with living quarters and life support systems as well as electrical power, computer, communications and flight control systems. Full-time resident crews simply cannot live and work on the station without it, and Zvezda also is equipped with the all-important propulsion system needed to keep the outpost aloft during five more years of construction and a subsequent decade of year-round scientific research.

"Number One, we need this thing to make sure we can keep the station up there, and Number Two, it is really the first of the station modules that can provide a place for crews to stay," said Pat Dasch, executive director of the National Space Society in Washington, D.C. "So you don't have a habitable outpost until it's up there," she said. "And the other major thing is that we can't really build the station out any further until this thing is in place." That's why the upcoming launch is so critical.

Riding atop a Russian Proton rocket, Zvezda is scheduled to blast off from Baikonur Cosmodrome just before 1 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (5 a.m. GMT) July 12. Twice last year, normally reliable Proton rockets suffered cataclysmic launch failures that subsequently were traced to problems with its second-stage engine. And while Proton engines since have been modified, the anxiety level at the Zvezda launch still is expected to be high.

Said Charles Vick, a space policy analyst with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C.: "Everybody involved is going to be gnashing their teeth and biting their lips until this launch is successfully carried out."

And with good reason, with no back up Service Module waiting in the wings, a launch failure would: Some independent aerospace experts, as a result, say a launch failure might amount to a death knell for the oft-embattled station project. "There's a lot riding on this launch, and if it does fail, we're probably going to have immense political problems in the U.S.," Webb said. "I'm not sure at all that the ongoing program would not be in great jeopardy."

Zvezda's success would be a "great thing" for NASA.

Others, however, doubt that the U.S. and its international partners would pull the plug on the program, which is considered the cornerstone project for 21st Century human space exploration. The worldwide station consortium, they note, already has invested tens of billions of dollars in the project, and thousands of pounds of U.S., European, Japanese and Canadian components already have been built and are virtually ready for launch.

"What's the alternative?" said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "To walk away from the project at this point, I think, is both programmatically and politically infeasible. So I think that grudgingly, and with lots of moaning, the U.S. Congress - and for that matter, The White House - would provide money to get the job done."

That scenario is one NASA and its partners are hoping to avoid by pulling off a successful July 12 launch and then a safe Service Module docking at the existing station two weeks later. Doing so would serve as a major turning point for the project, clearing the way for the first full-time crew to board the outpost in early November amid a backlogged series of station construction missions aboard U.S. space shuttles.

As it stands now, NASA is poised to loft nine shuttle missions by the end of 2001, and if all goes well during those flights, the outpost would quickly grow to the size of a three-bedroom house while becoming the third or fourth brightest object in the night sky. Another 31 U.S. shuttle and Russian rocket missions then would follow in relatively fast fashion, capping the most monumental space construction project in human history around September 2005.

"A mission success with the Service Module really would put things back into kind of a rock-n-roll operation for NASA, and I think that would be a great thing," Pulham said. "That would breathe a lot of excitement into what NASA is doing."

Confident NASA astronaut Robert Cabana, meanwhile, said the project's many critics and skeptics are in for a big surprise. "I think people ought to stop doubting and start believing," said Cabana, who now serves as the agency's station project manager for international operations. "We are going to build this space station. It is going to happen," he said. "And I think you're going to see a fantastic facility here in the not-to-distant future."

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