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The Space Station Goes International
Forging A New Relationship With The Russians
by: Karl Sabbagh, Producer, Writer and Director of SPACE STATION

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Many of the NASA and Boeing engineers have come to know and respect the Russian way of doing things even though it is often different from the way American space hardware is designed and manufactured. "The Russians have worked out a way of designing things that worked twenty years ago and they evolve slowly from it," says Bob Castle, a Space Station Flight Director. "By and large, it is driven by the Russian culture that people tend to stay in a job for a long, long time. If someone gets a job designing a certain type of hardware, they may stay in that job for twenty years. That rarely happens in America. People move on, people change. So I think that's why you see more change, more different designs coming out of American companies than you do out of Russian companies."

Randy Brinkley was very sympathetic to the individual Russians he worked with. "I work with the Russians, I talk to them almost on a daily basis, I've spent a tremendous amount of time with them in the last three and a half years, I've come to know them on a personal basis and as a result of that I have high respect for them. They're very professional, they're very capable, they're very proud of their accomplishments in space, they're also going through a very difficult period. The people that I work with, my counterparts, have gone for months without being paid. They don't have a wardrobe of suits; they're not getting rich; they're doing what they do because of their pride and that's what they've done all their lives."

For American politicians, particularly those who were against Russian participation in the first place, the current cash crisis just confirms their views. As the Service Module suffered further delays in 1999, Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) became increasingly afraid that the whole project would be jeopardized by the Russian problems if America wasn't able to go it alone. It seemed as if his skepticism was confirmed when at a Joint Project Meeting in Moscow in October 1999, a further delay was announced in the launch of the Service Module. Only this time, the reason was slightly different. It was no longer shortage of cash - somehow, with some behind-the-scenes bartering of Russian research time on the Space Station, the funds were there to complete it. But now the American side was having problems finalizing the software that was vital for allowing the Service Module to communicate and operate with the rest of the Space Station.

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One observer of the Russian/American relationship was optimistic that the problems were working themselves out. Ginger Barnes of The Boeing Company was in charge of Russian liaison in connection with the Zarya module. She had acquired a considerable understanding of the Russian mentality during her years on the project and felt that sometimes Americans handled their Russian counterparts in the wrong way.

"The Russians are very proud of their space experience, and many times when we try to penetrate issues, or we try to understand things, they feel like they're being violated, it seems; they would really like for us to respect their heritage and their legacy, and treat them like a full partner, rather than like any sub-contractor down the road. The premise of the Space Station and the international participation has been that we will treat these space agencies like they know what they're doing, and we're not always good at that."

The Space Station stands at a crossroads and its biggest test will be the next four months. If by next February there is a growing International Space Station consisting of three interconnected modules including the Service Module, then the project is on course for a series of Russian and American launches that will lead to a fully inhabited Space Station by 2004. Ginger Barnes' optimism will have been justified. If something happens to prevent the Service Module - yet again - from being launched early in 2000, then Sensenbrenner and the project's critics will be able to say to NASA, "We told you so." And they will be right.


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