July 11, 2000

Troubled Russian space program stakes reputation on new module

Copyright © 2000, The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast or re-distributed directly or re-directly.

STAR CITY, Russia (AP) - Weeds grow through the sidewalk and a skinny stray puppy seeks attention from visitors - a scene not from an obscure provincial village but from Russia's facility for training cosmonauts.

Unlike spit-and-polish Western space programs, Russia's sometimes appears down at the heels. But with Wednesday's planned launch of a key module of the International Space Station, Russia intends to prove that it's back in space in a big way.

''It's a very important step,'' said Konstantin Kreidenko, a spokesman for the Russian Aviation and Space Agency. ''Many countries are depending on it.''

The 22-ton, 43-foot-long Zvezda module - whose name means ''star'' in Russian - is the life center of the 16-nation space station project, providing accommodation and sanitation for the crew, as well as propulsion and flight control.

For years, it looked more like it was on life-support.

The United States, which initiated the International Space Station project in 1984, brought in Russia in 1993 to build the Zvezda in hopes of saving time and money. But the project, frustrated by cash shortages in the Russian space program, ran more than two years behind schedule and the delays cost an estimated $3 billion.

The Zvezda was ready last year, but its launch was delayed after two Proton rockets - the type that are to lift it into orbit - crashed while launching satellites.

These high-profile troubles came as Russia, with a budget of just $100 million for space programs this year, was scraping for money to keep its Mir space station aloft. After several exotic plans fell through, including one to send an actor to the Mir to film scenes for a movie, the private investment group MirCorp provided funds for a mission just weeks before the government was to have scuttled the craft.

The next mission to the Mir is to carry a ''space tourist,'' a U.S. businessman who will pay tens of millions of dollars for the trip.

Even a recent reception to honor the latest Mir cosmonauts required commercial sponsorship, with the Ford Motor Company showing its logo on stage and handing out car-purchase credit applications in the lobby.

The money hunt, along with a frightening series of system failures and a fire on the Mir in 1998, contrast sharply with the Soviet Union's one-time primacy in space.

In 1957, the Soviet Union put the world's first satellite in orbit, shocking Americans who regarded themselves as technologically superior, then put the first human in space four years later.

The Russian space program's troubles are an unpleasant undercurrent to even its proudest moments of accomplishment.

At the Mir reception at Star City, cosmonaut Alexei Kalerin said his two-month trip to resuscitate the space station was a mission ''that pretty much nobody believed in.''

''It is our communal victory,'' he declared, standing under a faded and wrinkled poster of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.

Proud statements aside, Russia still has to prove itself with the Zvezda.

At a news conference last week, the head of NASA's programs with Russia, Capt. Michael Baker, struck a skeptical note, saying that crews would blast off for the International Space Station this fall ''if all goes successfully'' with Zvezda.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, has warned that station crews will face increased risk and noise because of Russia's failure to meet NASA safety standards. It says the module's aluminum and magnesium skin doesn't offer strong enough protection against collisions with space junk and its equipment will fail if cabin pressure is lost, jeopardizing the entire station.

The launch of the Zvezda from the Baikonur cosmodrome in the former Soviet republic of Kazakstan comes 25 years almost to the day that U.S. and Soviet crews blasted off for a rendezvous in orbit that space buffs saw as heralding a new era of cooperation in space.

The Zvezda launch is seen by some as carrying similar importance.

''It's the key to sustaining human presence in space,'' said analyst John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. He added that the project also has benefits on the ground, helping the often-tense relations between Washington and Moscow.

''The space station is one of the few remaining ''The space station is one of the few remaining areas of cooperation between the United States and Russia,'' he said.