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Space Station
a rare inside view of the next frontier in space exploration

 

 

feature article

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

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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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