MAY 26, 1997
The space shuttle "Atlantis" touched down Saturday, after a successful rendezvous with the Russian space station "Mir." Reporting on the shuttle's journey and the mission's purpose is Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, a partnership in space. Charlayne Hunter-Gault has that story.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The space shuttle "Atlantis" touched down Saturday, after a successful rendezvous with the Russian space station "Mir." "Atlantis" astronauts brought food, water, supplies, and a newcomer. A British-born American, Michael Foale, replaced Dr. Jerry Linenger, who has been on the floating laboratory for more than four months. Linenger gave a video tour of the space station floating over 200 miles above Earth before returning to Earth.
DR. JERRY LINENGER, NASA Astronaut: We've got little sleep cabins over this way, sleeping bags sitting right here. This just happens to be the commander's sleep station.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: "Mir" was launched by the then Soviet Union in 1986. Its mission was to see how astronauts perform during long stays in space. In 1993, the new Russian government accepted the United States as a partner in the project. As part of the deal, the U.S. has paid more than $26 million to upgrade the station and another $42 million to sustain the astronauts on "Mir." The U.S. is allowed to have one crew member among the three on board. "Mir" gained national attention last year when Shannon Lucid broke the record for longest time in space for an American.
SHANNON LUCIDE, NASA Astronaut: And I think that we'll learn a lot, and I think that it's a very good opportunity that we as America have to start establishing our presence in space for a continuous period of time.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Recently, astronauts have experienced difficulties with the 11-year-old space station. In February, an oxygen-generating cannister burst into flames. Smoke filled the station and almost forced the astronauts to abandon ship. The station is equipped with two escape capsules for such emergencies. Then, in March, a malfunction in the cooling system led to temperatures as high as 90 degrees, and in April, a carbon dioxide removal system broke down, causing the astronauts to suffer from nasal congestion. The crew fixed the problem quickly, but the system is operating now at minimum capacity. Foale, the fifth U.S. astronaut to spend time on "Mir," will help make repairs and put in a new oxygen generator. He said he was not concerned about the safety of "Mir."
MICHAEL FOALE, NASA Astronaut: I'm not worrying about it. The safety is perfectly assured. It's--what I'm preparing myself for is being away from my family and working four or five months with my crew in space.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The mishaps have raised concerns about another U.S.-Russian partnership--an international space station currently under development and planned to be operational in 2002. Already, delays have amounted to some 250 million dollars out of a total price tag of some 50 billion dollars. Thirteen countries will help the United States and Russia build the football field-size station. It will require 40 launches from nations in Asia and North America to get all of the pieces of the station into place. The U.S. and Russia are the major contractors. Russia has agreed to spend an estimated $4 billion to help build a variety of components, including the main module, the part that will house the astronauts and propel the outposts around the Earth. But the cash-starved Russian government was having trouble initially coming up with the money. So the liftoff has been pushed back from May to December 1998. NASA has devised a backup plan to build its own module in case the Russians don't come through on their end of the deal. Meanwhile, the latest mission to "Mir," with infusion of new supplies and a crew member has rejuvenated both American and Russian enthusiasm for the joint project.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For more now on "Mir" and the U.S.-Russian space partnership, we're joined by Alan Ladwig, associate administrator of policy and plans for NASA; Roald Sagdeev, the former director of the Space Research Institute in Moscow, he served as adviser to then President Gorbachev on space issues, he is currently a professor of physics at the University of Maryland; and James Oberg, a space engineer and independent consultant, who has written widely on the Russian space program. Thank you, gentlemen all, for joining us. First, to you, Mr. Ladwig, why is the U.S. space collaboration with Russia so important?
ALAN LADWIG, NASA: Well, since we're going to go forward with the international space station in this actual things we've been doing between the shuttle and "Mir," is part of that effort, it's actually phase one of the space station, and you ought to look at it much like the Apollo program, where we had the Gemini program, which helped us test technologies, do some experimentation, get operational experience, do space walks, do different things that were going to be critical for the Apollo program. You have to have a testing ground. So the "Mir" program offers us a way to reduce risk, to get earlier science operations, to learn how to start working with the Russians, and to figure out how to operate in this--with these two--eventually we're going to have 15 countries involved, so we're starting to get early management expertise and learn how to deal with problems, and we certainly have had an opportunity to learn how to deal with some problems recently.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We're going to get to those in a minute, but let me ask you, Mr. Sagdeev, do you have anything to add to that in terms of the importance of this Russia-U.S. collaboration?
ROALD SAGDEEV, University of Maryland: I think NASA is acting as a smart customer, is buying the services which Russians can provide, which are extremely useful. They are complimentary to what NASA can perform simply on the basis of shuttle. Spacecrafts and it--in this it is helping to NASA, helping to Russians to be ready to work together in much more sophistication, technologically sophisticated environment of future space station.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And, Mr. Oberg, the reason Russian technology in this regard is so important to the U.S. is because--
JAMES OBERG, Space Engineer: Well, the Russians are pioneering the work of long-duration space stations even twenty/twenty-five years ago. So they have accumulated much more experience in orbit than the U.S. ever did. What's happening today, though, in Russia is that the experience base, the people and the machinery and the facilities, have been decaying because of their financial crises over there. The question remains: How much of the old glory and the old real capabilities are still there? And we're seeing some very disturbing trends that they used to be able to do. They can't do it anymore. They can't deliver anymore. And they can't live on their morals. They've got to get their program going again to get it financed again, and they're proving that they can't seem to get the financing for it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Given all of that, Mr. Ladwig, I mean, how safe--just how safe is "Mir?" I mean, you alluded in your opening statement to all the problems.
ALAN LADWIG: Well, two things. The funding situation and the problems that had been keeping some of the money flowing is being resolved. The money is now flowing, and it is going to take care of the deliverables that the Russian space agency owes us. We have a fixed price contract with them for some goods and services, and those are being delivered, and there is the third element of the space station assembly is behind, and that's causing a slip in the line. In terms of safety, you have to take a look at how we view safety at NASA. Ever since the Challenger and even before the Challenger accident, but especially since the Challenger accident, safety is No. 1 priority at NASA. The administrator, Dan Goldin, preaches this every time he speaks to contractors, to employees--throughout our strategic planning, throughout our implementation plans, safety is No. 1. So when we wanted to understand what was happening with "Mir," we had three different teams take a look at that. The three of those groups, all led by astronauts, presented their findings to the senior management of NASA, including the directors of four of our space-like field centers, and we feel a degree of confidence that we have overcome these problems, not to say that they are easy to overcome, not to make light of them, not to say we enjoy having them, but there is a process in place to deal with them, and we are very confident that we are operating in a safe manner.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Was it--go ahead.
JAMES OBERG: That process does not give us a lot of confidence, though, because the process of being caught by surprise--the problem with these good feelings here and these good wishes and the enthusiasm is that we keep seeing our space people being blind-sided by Russian development that they didn't expect. These comments about the finances now being under--now being fixed, that's exactly the same words we heard last year, the year before, and the Russians--
ALAN LADWIG: The money--
JAMES OBERG: You had your minute. I have mine.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Okay. But let me just clarify something right here. Did the money flow contribute to the problems that we've outlined with the oxygen and all the other ones we've contributed to?
JAMES OBERG: The main contributor there was age, and putting bandaids on to an old space station hasn't cured its primary illness. It's old.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Let me--
JAMES OBERG: It's too old.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Sagdeev, where do you come in on this? I mean, is the thing too old, as Mr. Oberg just said?
ROALD SAGDEEV: I think there are two issues. One issue is money flow and the delays on Russian side versus the future international space station. This is a separate issue. It should be discussed separately, what is wrong in Russia, why they were not contributing money in the amount which they promised. The second issue is whether NASA should continue to use new station.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Right. How dangerous is it?
ROALD SAGDEEV: How dangerous is it? Is it safe? In my view, it is much safer for astronauts than for mountain climbers to go to Everest, and NASA is doing appropriate job. We have to learn how Russians approach the whole issue of safety.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Different from what Mr. Ladwig just outlined?
ROALD SAGDEEV: Oh, I think NASA is doing a good job. Maybe Mr. Oberg would have to be given chance once to visit or to proceed. It's his eyes--how his groups are working on sensitive issues--it is so important.
JAMES OBERG: What I've seen with my own eyes, Roald, what I've seen with my own eyes is that the Cosmodrome around the facilities is a once--space program--
ROALD SAGDEEV: I would like to see as a guest of NASA--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Let me just get--
JAMES OBERG: NASA's guests see it NASA's way.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Excuse me, Mr. Oberg, let me just get Mr. Sagdeev to finish his point. You were about to say that Russians look at the issue of safety, their philosophy is a bit different than NASA; how different, in what way?
ROALD SAGDEEV: Everything. Engineering standards very different before we came together in 1972 to ‘75 to launch jointly Apollo and Soyuz. Now we have to cut the rate much more intimately. The issue of safety in Russian rocketry is even of paramount importance.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Speak to the point, though, that Mr. Oberg made, Mr. Ladwig, that this is a decaying--you didn't use the word antiquated but you said it was--
JAMES OBERG: It's a good station, and it's operated for a long time. I think it deserves to be retired with honors. It's now twice as old as its design life; you're going to bandaid and replace individual components in it. But there are many other features of the station that is hardware that simply cannot be seen. I don't care how many high VIP, blue ribbon panels you have down on the ground; the station has systems on board that cannot be inspected. All we know is that they're too old. We know that other systems like these that the Russians and us fly don't degrade very gracefully; they don't just break down, let you run for it in a Soyuz.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you see--
JAMES OBERG: --fail.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You see a space wreck about to happen?
JAMES OBERG: I see--no one knows when the "Mir" is going to break down. But to say that because we have bandaided parts of the problems aboard inside the station, that the station is now as safe as it ever was, is I think foolish.
ALAN LADWIG: I did not say--
JAMES OBERG: There were failures. We've learned a lot from it. We all agree. We all agree.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I got that point, Mr. Oberg. Let me just let Mr. Ladwig respond in a way that the audience can hear him. Okay.
ALAN LADWIG: I did not say that was as safe as it ever was, but the "Mir" is also more robust than it was from the beginning--
JAMES OBERG: How much riskier is it?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Hang on, Mr. Oberg.
ALAN LADWIG: --because of the new modules that have been added, because of the new components that have been brought out, because of the maintenance schedule that the Russians have maintained. They do look at this differently. They look at this as kind of we would look at a submarine, where if there's a problem, they've got to take care of it on the spot.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Okay.
ALAN LADWIG: But I really have to take exception to his comment that we have some kind of a "feel good" management structure here to talk about safety. This is an insult to the--the three astronauts that led those three teams. You really think that after Challenger an astronaut is going to get on the line and say something is safe that is going to endanger a fellow crew member; we resent that.
JAMES OBERG: The record is that these NASA panels were caught by surprise, not just by the financial collapse of the Russians, but by things like the fire on board--on board a few months ago. There was a fire two years ago aboard the "Mir" that NASA wasn't told about--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right.
JAMES OBERG: --until months afterwards. So these same people have been caught by surprise in the past.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Briefly respond to his point.
ROALD SAGDEEV: I happen to know how Russians are working and how safety issues are handled in Russia versus risk for life of the man or of the woman on board; they're very thorough.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But the caught by surprise point, the caught by surprise point.
ROALD SAGDEEV: They record--each time you have something unhappy accident, the driver is caught by surprise, but you have all these contingency measures. The fire was extinguished within a matter of seconds, and all the precautions were fulfilled.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Ladwig, tell me, very briefly, about the international project, this football field-sized space station. What's the importance of it, and do you see any major problems to its getting completed?
ALAN LADWIG: Well, we've had some budget stability brought to the agency over the past couple of years, and that has helped us keep on schedule and within the budget parameters we had. This problem with the service module, the third element that the Russians owe is, is setting things back about six months. We slipped first element launch from November of ‘97 to June of ‘98, and we're certainly not happy about that, and we're going to hold their feet to he fire to make sure they deliver the rest of it. The station, itself, is international in nature. Fifteen countries are involved. It will be a long-term presence in space. It allows us to do things we can't do in these brief fifteen/twenty day missions with the shuttle.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Briefly, tell me, Mr. Sagdeev, given all the problems and everything, why should--why--what is the importance of these things up in the sky? Does it have any practical value to Americans or Russians or anybody else?
ROALD SAGDEEV: The space program has tremendous practical value. The practical application is not coming--not springing immediately after every launch. We already have a lot of things in orbit like telecommunications satellites. Space station now is major development for future space. If we want to abandon, okay, we can close this program, but if--we will have to do it with open eyes.
ALAN LADWIG: We've been involved in space exploration for almost 40 years now. The developments that come out of it or the outcomes are that we push technology, new technologies, new systems that aren't--that are good not only for the missions we're trying to perform but also that works its ways into new products and services and advances not only the state of technology in this country but advances knowledge, and the advancement of knowledge--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Knowledge for what?
ALAN LADWIG: The advancement of knowledge for knowledge, for the application to a wide range of interdisciplinary subjects has been historically the thing that builds great nations.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right.
ALAN LADWIG: And we believe this will build great partnerships for the future.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, gentlemen, thank you.
JAMES OBERG: Thank you. Good night.