Space Station Goes International
On November 20th, 1998, Geoff Bantle, a NASA manager, leaned back in his chair in Space Station Mission Control in Houston and looked up at a large video screen showing pictures from a launch pad at the Russian Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. "Fifteen years ago when I started in this business I wouldn't have imagined sitting here watching a Proton launch, so it's pretty neat. It just would have never crossed my mind that we would be doing that."
Bantle, head of NASA's Flight Directors Office, was joined that night by an unusually high number of other NASA managers and engineers to watch the launch of the Proton rocket, which a few years before would have been a well-kept secret and certainly would not have been opened up to American space engineers, then seen as rivals rather than collaborators.
But with the end of the Cold War, NASA and the American government looked at Russia in a new light. At a time when NASA was wrestling with plans for a Space Station called Freedom, it was facing continuing pressure from the White House and Congress to reduce the cost of the design. But NASA was keen not to let the ambitious plan for the next step in manned spaceflight turn into little more than a repeat of Russia's Mir station. And space scientists felt that they needed something on a scale and a timeline that would allow serious scientific research to be carried out over a long period, with a permanent crew of up to seven scientists and astronauts.
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With the advent of a potential partner with space expertise equal to America's, the way was open for an International Space Station, one where the cost burden could be shared and the cost reduction objectives of the Clinton administration could be met. For Randy Brinkley, NASA's Space Station Program manager until early 1999, the new design and operational plan, produced in collaboration with the two chief Russian space technology companies, promised major improvements on the U.S. go-it-alone station.
"It gives us an additional thirty percent of volume; it adds additional crew; it leverages the Russians' capability; and it reduces not only the development cost but it significantly reduces the operations cost because if you don't use the Russian vehicles to bring propellant up to the Space Station, you'll have to use the Shuttle, and that means additional Shuttle flights and that's very costly. So, in terms of its cost to do the research, the Russian participation makes it much more cost effective for the long run."
If only they had known . . . Five years on, there are plenty of NASA and Boeing Company engineers who wish the Russian relationship had never been forged, as Russia's first major contribution to the Space Station, a pressurized element called the Service Module, limps towards its first launch a year or more later than originally intended. Even those who see the necessity of Russia's participation sometimes want to tear their hair out. Gordon DuCote is the NASA manager overseeing the development and manufacture of the Service module.
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"If I had to do it over again would I? Boy, that's a tough question. There's many, many nights when I go home just drained and I'd say 'no, I wouldn't.' This is just too hard and I'm too tired and I'm too frustrated. And then I remember that without the Service Module we probably don't have an International Space Station. We don't have a place for the crews to go and work and sleep and eat and control the Station from. So I think I'm doing a pretty important job and when I remember that it lifts me again."
DuCote is typical of the ten thousand or so NASA and Boeing engineers who have wrestled with a series of budget cuts, schedule delays and technical problems in the first phase of the world's most complex space project ever. But they're getting there. The first element, called Zarya, was launched last November from Russia followed by the second element, called Unity, launched from the U.S. in December. Those pieces were then linked by astronauts on spacewalks and now orbit the earth every ninety minutes, awaiting the rest of the Station. Another twenty or so major components are due to be launched over the next five years until 2004 when the Station, a space laboratory with accommodation for up to seven long-term visitors, will begin an intensive program of experiments in space science.
So how is it that with more than fifty years of experience in making and launching spacecraft, things have gone so wrong for the Russians in their first major collaboration with an international partner? It's a complex answer having to do with the fact that although the hardware is made and the rockets launched by the Russian Space Agency, the money comes directly from the government. Over the last few years the Russian economy has been in such a perilous state that space projects have become less of a national priority, particularly space projects that are a collaboration with a former enemy. But the poor Russian space engineers, who meet on a weekly basis with U.S. engineers and managers, get blamed for failing to produce the goods when many of them are suffering personally from cutbacks - including not getting paid for months on end - and are still doing their best to deliver.
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