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"Stationed in the Stars"

PBS Airdate: April 25, 2000
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NARRATOR: During the following program, look for NOVA's Web markers which lead you to more information at our Web site.

ASTRONAUT: We're going around the world awful fast. We are -

NARRATOR: Two hundred miles overhead, astronauts from around the globe have set out on a risky new adventure in space.

Hurtling around the earth at nearly 18 thousand miles an hour, they're reporting to work on the most perilous construction site in the cosmos - The International Space Station.

With six scientific laboratories and living quarters for seven, the completed station will be the size of two football fields.

JOHN PIKE: Well, the space station is clearly the largest construction project since the Great Pyramids, and is going to result in the largest single object that we've ever had in Earth orbit.

NARRATOR: Over the next five years, more than 40 launches will haul nearly a million pounds of hardware and scientific equipment into orbit, where astronauts will bolt the pieces together like a giant Tinkertoy in the sky.

Yet even as they risk their lives to build it, the future of this mammoth project is in doubt.

For help in construction, the U.S. has turned to a leader in space station technology -Russia.

DAN GOLDIN: This is a historic moment and I'm just very excited. Mr. Koptev, I want to give you a hug.

NARRATOR: Russia is being counted on to build some of the station's most critical components - systems on which astronauts lives will depend.

LEONID GORSHKOV: The Americans can't build the space station without Russia. Only Russia knows how to do long-term spaceflight.

NARRATOR: But more than a year after the station's first two pieces were launched, the crucial Russian-built third piece still sits on the ground, a roadblock to further construction.

JAMES SENSENBRENNER: Excuse me, sir, the whole reason why there is a crisis today -

NARRATOR: Somehow the fate of this project - the cornerstone of America's manned space program - has come to rest in the hands of its old enemy.

JAMES OBERG: Every promise has been broken. Times and schedules we saw again and again where the Russians had promised hardware, promised contributions, they didn't show up.

NARRATOR: Will this fragile alliance survive?

And if not, what will become of America's future in space?

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NARRATOR: It is a frigid morning on the icy plains of Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

Here at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Russia's primary rocket launching facility, a powerful Proton booster moves toward the launch pad.

The first piece of the International Space Station is perched on top - a Russian-built component called Zarya, or Sunrise.

Zarya will be a minor piece of the final station - little more than a storage closet.

But because it's equipped with power and propulsion, the unmanned craft has been chosen to play an important role. By being first to reach orbit, it becomes the destination for all future flights.

For now, its job is to wait in space. But Zarya won't be alone for long.

Two short weeks later, the Space Shuttle Endeavor is ready for lift-off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The crew, five Americans and one Russian, is setting off on the first in a long series of assembly missions - missions that will turn astronauts into the ultimate high-rise construction workers.

ASTRONAUT: (inaudible) clear.

NARRATOR: As they prepare for lift-off, the crew is under intense pressure.

After more than a decade of delays, NASA badly needs this flight to be a success, for what began as an all-American project during the Cold War has evolved into an international effort.

Sixteen countries have spent billions of dollars designing and building the station's many pieces.

Now the time has come to begin putting them together.

CONTROLLER: Eight. We have a go for main engine start. We have main engine start. 3, 2, 1. We have booster ignition and liftoff of the Space Shuttle Endeavor, with the first American element of the International Space Station, uniting our efforts in space to achieve our common goals.

NARRATOR: Once the fury of liftoff subsides, the real work can begin.

ASTRONAUT: OK. Starting out, Nancy -

NARRATOR: Tucked in the shuttle's payload bay is the first American-built piece of the station, a module called Unity.

ASTRONAUT: We really appreciate the (inaudible) team.

NARRATOR: One of the station's smallest components, Unity will serve as a kind of front porch.

On one end, a docking port for visiting spacecraft.

Around its perimeter, hatches that will eventually lead to other modules.

The goal of this mission is as simple as it is symbolic: to join Russia and America, in the form of Zarya and Unity, in a permanent embrace.

But first Endeavor must catch the Russian module, which is circling the globe at 17,000 miles an hour.

With each orbit, the gap between the two spacecraft narrows.

Still, it takes Commander Bob Cabana and his crew two days to overtake it.

BOB CABANA: When you first see it, it's like a very, very, very bright star. Sergei Krikalev was the first one to see Zarya. Very appropriate, our Russian crewmate saw it.

NARRATOR: With Zarya in view, the shuttle closes in cautiously.

RICK STURCKOW: The Zarya module weighed 45,000 pounds. The Shuttle weighs over 200,000 pounds. You're both going 17,500 miles an hour, flying formation essentially about three feet away from it.

NARRATOR: With the two spacecraft so close together, the slightest miscalculation could spell disaster.

Using the Shuttle's robot arm, astronaut Nancy Currie reaches gingerly out to Zarya. In the weightless void of space, she must grab onto the module gently, without pushing or pulling it.

As the arm inches forward, the crew stands by, prepared to blast away to safety if anything goes wrong.

After a few tense moments, the arm latches on.

ASTRONAUT: Houston Endeavor, we have Zarya.

NARRATOR: Using only remote cameras to guide her, Currie then swings Zarya over the top of Unity, bringing their docking rings into alignment.

ASTRONAUT: Houston Endeavor, we hooked it all up -

NARRATOR: With a burst from the shuttle's jets, the two modules lock together.

ASTRONAUT: OK, give me power off push.

ASTRONAUT 2: Power off, all eighteen lights are out.

ASTRONAUT: Son of a gun. (laughter)

ASTRONAUT 2: Good job.

HOUSTON: See if you've got clearance for the array.

ASTRONAUT: Clearing the arrays is not a problem.

NARRATOR: It takes three space walks to turn the two modules into a single, functioning unit.

But at last the crew is ready to open the hatch and enter Unity.

BOB CABANA: Everybody had asked us on the ground, well who's going to go first, who's going to do what? And I wouldn't tell anybody.

And then when we got on orbit and we were actually going in that day, I said Sergei come on. And we went through all the hatches together, every one of them from start to finish, from the front end to the back end.

NARRATOR: Both Russian and American crew members are euphoric, never suspecting that this may be one of the last happy moments in the new relationship between old rivals.

Broken promises, national pride and other vestiges of the Cold War will soon threaten to destroy this newly forged bond.

February, 2000. More than a year has passed. Unity and Zarya continue to circle the globe. But they're empty.

The lights are on, but nobody's home.

Construction of the space station has ground to a halt, held up by delays on the critical third piece, the Russian-built Service Module, also known as Zvezda, or "star."

The Service Module is the keystone of the young station. When joined to Zarya and Unity, as seen in this NASA animation, it provides propulsion and life support - or it will, if it ever gets off the ground.

Here at the Khrunichev Rocket factory near Moscow, the source of the delays is plain to see.

With the Russian economy in shambles, the country's space budget has shrunk to a small fraction of what it once was.

As government payments to aerospace contractors slowed to a trickle, so did the work on Zvezda.

And every day that Russia's engineers remained idle, the space station's future grew murkier.

Zarya and Unity, little more than a front porch and a closet, are unfit to host a crew.

Slowed by friction from the upper atmosphere, they are gradually losing altitude, falling about a mile a week.

And without the Service Module's engines to hold them in orbit, all other pieces of the station are stuck on the ground.

With the project now two years behind schedule, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin must answer to Congress.

JAMES SENSENBRENNER: Our relationship with the Russian space program is fundamentally flawed -

NARRATOR: His chief antagonist is Republican Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner.

SENSENBRENNER: - spend unnecessary money -

NARRATOR: Sensenbrenner supports the space station, but faults NASA for its heavy reliance on the Russians.

SENSENBRENNER: The partnership's not working because the Russians have failed to meet every deadline they've either set for themselves or the partnership has set for them. So instead of speeding up the project and saving money, it's slowed down the project and it's cost the American taxpayer over a billion dollars.

NARRATOR: The roots of the current crisis go back to 1991.

The collapse of the Soviet Union meant the end of the Cold War.

It also brought down the curtain on what historian William Burrows calls the First Space Age.

WILLIAM BURROWS: The First Space Age was in fact a product of the Cold War. It is over now for a couple of reasons. One reason is, is that the competition is gone. There are no longer Russians who are going beak-to-beak with us.

NARRATOR: The first space age began in 1957, with an event that shocked America -the launch of Sputnik.

TV ANNOUNCER: It is quite possible that an aggressor nation that dominates space will then dominate the world. We just can't let that happen.

JAMES OBERG: Khruschev totally misread how the West was going to react to this feat. He thought they might be cowed into submission, into agreeableness.

Just the opposite happened. It outraged, terrified and invigorated the West to a massive response.

NARRATOR: To lead the American response, President Eisenhower turned to the expatriate German rocket engineer, Wernher von Braun.

At the time, Von Braun was best known for developing rockets for Hitler, but his greatest passion was the manned exploration of space.

In the early 1950s, he laid out his vision in a series of articles in Collier's magazine.

BURROWS: For the price of 15 cents, in 1952 to 1954 there were a series of articles in Colliers and for that price, 15 cents, you could buy what turned out to be the blueprint of the space age.

NARRATOR: Von Braun's design of a space plane anticipated the space shuttle.

But his most ardent dream was to build a permanent station in orbit.

VON BRAUN: Our space satellite will have the shape of a wheel, measuring 200 feet across.

This outside rim will contain living and working quarters for a crew of 50 men.

This entire space station will have to be prefabricated and tested on the ground.

After dismantling, it will be transported in pieces up to the orbit.

NARRATOR: Von Braun's giant, spinning wheel became an icon of popular culture, vividly brought to life by director Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Von Braun saw a space station as the first stage in a plan for exploring the solar system ... a stepping stone to the moon and then to Mars and beyond.

And with the convenient help of the Red Menace, it seemed he might actually get a chance to build one.

GAGARIN: (inaudible)

NARRATOR: But in 1961, when the Russians scored another first and sent Yuri Gagarin into space, President Kennedy decided something more dramatic was needed.

KENNEDY: I believe that this nation should commit itself, to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

In setting his sights on the moon, Kennedy bypassed von Braun's stepping stone. The great engineer went back to work developing rockets, though now they would carry men instead of bombs.

JAMES OBERG: White House historians have found the notes that Kennedy and his staff used to pick the goal in space. They wanted a goal far enough in the future that the Russian's were not about to beat us there. And that's why the moon landing, rather than a big manned space station was chosen.

And that was the main political purpose of Apollo, was to re-establish the reputation of American technology as the best in the world.

ASTRONAUT: OK, engine stop. We copy you down Eagle.

BURROWS: When the Russians saw that we had gotten to the moon first, and that in fact that they were not going to get to the moon, the Russians decided they were going to go a different way. And the way they were going to go was this old Space Station dream.

NARRATOR: The world's first space station, Salyut 1, was launched in 1971, on the tenth anniversary of Gagarin's historic flight.

Its three crew members became instant heroes back in the Soviet Union.

JAMES OBERG: So it's June 1971 and the Salyut is in orbit with three cosmonauts. Every night on Russian television there are views from the men on board the station, doing summersaults, playing, observing, looking out the windows. To them it's the fulfillment of the dream of space.

It's the restoration of themselves as the lead space power, erasing the humiliation of the American moon walk two years before.

NARRATOR: But triumph soon turned to tragedy.

JAMES OBERG: The very end of the flight, 24 days into the flight, the crew comes back, they land, everyone's anticipating a hero's parade, a hero's welcome in Moscow and all three men are dead.

After the tragedy the engineers reconstructed the accident and they discovered that there was a valve inside their command module that had broken open, had been shocked open when they separated from a part of their spacecraft. At 100 miles in space, the air began whistling out.

The men had tried close the valve - they had tried to find and close it, but there wasn't time before the air was gone, they lost consciousness and died.

It set them back. It was such a heartbreaking disaster. And the whole country just wept.

NARRATOR: Despite this setback, the Soviets persisted, sending up a series of Salyut stations over the next decade. Cosmonauts set one record after another for longevity in space.

The Soviets would up the ante even further when they began launching pieces of a second generation space station - a much larger craft called Mir.

By the early 1980's, the idea that the Soviets were still up there, spinning around, long after the glory days of Apollo, rankled many Americans.

The aerospace industry began a campaign for a space station America could call its own.

In 1984, they found a sympathetic ear in Ronald Reagan.

REAGAN: America has always been great when we dared to be great. We can reach for greatness again. We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful economic and scientific gain.

Tonight I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade.

NARRATOR: And so, Space Station Freedom was born. With a price tag of $8 billion, its first hurdle would be the White House Budget Office.

JIM MILLER: Well, I was budget director and I had responsibility for putting together the President's budget and how much would be spent on each agency, including NASA.

When we went into the cabinet meeting, the cabinet room, to have the meeting, there were the NASA people and I had my people from OMB, my mouth opened, my jaw dropped, because right there sitting in front of where the President was to sit were all these little models of the Space Station and the launch vehicles and so forth.

And the President came down, he sat down and he picked these up and he goes, "Hmm, that's interesting."

And he starts turning them over, and I'm over there sweating like, oh my gosh, I can see my losing this contest.

In the end, he sided with NASA and not with me.

NARRATOR: President Reagan's Space Station Freedom would be far larger than anything the Soviets had ever put in orbit. And its main purpose would be commercial.

Scientific research and new manufacturing processes in microgravity were expected to generate life-saving drugs and billions in profits.

But as soon as NASA engineers began to look closely at Reagan's plan, they realized it would be difficult to achieve at any cost, let alone $8 billion.

Reagan had invited America's allies to join in the project.

Over the next eight years, as partners from Europe, Japan and Canada weighed in with their own ideas, the station went through one re-design after another.

By 1992, NASA had spent the entire $8 billion without building a single piece of hardware.

JOHN HODGE: In fact, what happened was most of the $8 billion dollars got spent on people - salaries and expenses.

The one thing we had done was to spend the $8 billion dollars. So it was - that was kind of sad, in a way.

NARRATOR: While Russia's Space Station Mir flew overhead every 90 minutes, the International Space Station remained on the drawing board, its political future in doubt.

The Clinton White House cast a cold eye on this bloated Republican leftover.

Then, with the space station about to be jettisoned, help came from the most unlikely source - Russia.

Strapped for cash since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian space officials were picking over the ruins of their own recently cancelled programs when they learned of NASA's political troubles.

Seeing a way to keep both countries in space, the Russians proposed that the two old adversaries set aside the wasteful legacy of one-ups-manship and pool their resources.

JAMES OBERG: A few months into the Clinton administration there was a meeting of minds.

A combination of the Russian plans for their next Mir, Mir II, and a stripped down version of the old American Freedom Station program might be a workable and politically acceptable goal for both countries, for the new administration, Yeltsin's administration in Russia, and for the Clinton administration in the US.

And it turned out to be, symbolically at least, the perfect approach towards this project.

NARRATOR: NASA Administrator Dan Goldin was ecstatic.

DAN GOLDIN: This is a historic moment and I'm just very excited. Mr. Koptev, I want to give you a hug.

NARRATOR: The new partnership was as much about foreign policy as it was about space.

OBERG: There was a long list of very, very golden promises that by keeping their space industry going we'd prevent unemployed Russian rocket scientists from peddling their knowledge around the world to rogue states like North Korea or Iraq.

And we were told that this would symbolize, as Apollo symbolized American superiority over the Soviet Union in the 1960s, this new project would symbolize this U.S. and Russian partnership for the future, would inspire new cooperation, new public trust in both countries toward the policy of partnership.

NARRATOR: But first the two old rivals would have to agree on what kind of station to build.

In the summer of 1993, NASA held a series of secret meetings with Russian space officials outside Washington.

After only a few weeks, they emerged with a radical new design.

The station's first two pieces, Zarya and Unity, would quickly be joined by the Russian Service Module.

With its life support, propulsion and guidance in place, the station could house a crew of three as construction continued.

Clustered around this hub would be laboratories for scientist-astronauts from the U.S., Japan, Europe and Russia, who would eventually live in an American-built crew module.

As the station grows, a series of trusses will extend from this core, supporting the huge solar arrays needed to supply power.

An enormous Canadian-built robot arm will run along the spine of the station, enabling astronauts to manipulate large objects during construction.

A three-person Soyuz space capsule will be docked at the station at all times as an emergency lifeboat.

This division of responsibilities gave Russia a critical role in the construction of the Space Station.

JOHN PIKE: There was a lot of debate about the structure of the partnership with the Russians. Some people said that we ought to just tack them onto the side so that regardless of what happens we still had an American space station.

Other people were of the view that if this was really going to be a partnership, the Russians would have to play a very important role in it and indeed, I don't think the Russians would have accepted any less.

With the new agreement in place, NASA had a partner whose technical achievements equaled and, in some ways, surpassed its own.

Here, inside Russia's vacuum test facility, the latest Russian space suits are being put through their paces.

When it comes to the challenges of living and working in space, Russia's cosmonauts and engineers have logged many more hours than their American counterparts.

WILLIAM BURROWS: They've got the expertise in space stations, from Salyut and from Mir. They've got all that expertise which we can use. It's real. They've got the hours, they've got the cosmonauts, they've got the engineering and all that stuff.

These suits, designed to allow astronauts to work for long periods outside the station, will be part of the inventory delivered with the Service Module.

At 43 feet long, Zvezda is about the size of a school bus. And with its solar arrays extended, it will have a wingspan of almost 100 feet.

It also contains the rocket motors and guidance systems needed to keep the station in a stable orbit as it grows.

And with personal sleeping quarters, a toilet, a galley and dinner table, it will be home to the station's initial three-member crews.

Most importantly, it will carry the station's critical life support systems, the source of the crew's air and water.

Of the two, water poses a special challenge to space station designers, because of its sheer weight.

SCOTT CROOMES: To get water or anything else into space costs about $10,000 per pound and so at 10,000 pounds of weight needed per year for water that comes out to about $100 million per year per crew person.

NARRATOR: For the station's full crew of seven, it would cost an astronomical $700 million to supply enough water for a year - water used once and thrown away, as NASA has always done on the shuttle.

SCOTT CROOMES: With the space shuttle, a two week mission, it's like going on a camping trip. You can haul enough supplies, you can haul enough water and oxygen bottles and so forth.

But with the space station being in orbit for ten years or more, it just doesn't make sense to try to supply astronauts that way.

NARRATOR: So as far back as 1984, engineers here in Huntsville, Alabama, began working on ways to keep the cost of water down.

SCOTT CROOMES: The way we are approaching that is to make use of every drop of water possible on the station by re-purifying it through a system that we're developing here at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

NARRATOR: Tucked away in the corner of a hangar is NASA's water recycling test facility.

To simulate life on the Space Station, volunteers are recruited to exercise. Their sweat, the water vapor they exhale and the water they use, are carefully collected and recycled.

The ultimate goal is a "closed loop" life support system, in which every ounce of air and water is captured, purified and re-used.

It's the kind of technology that will be needed for long space voyages on which re-supply is impossible.

But after nearly a decade of work, the goal of a completely closed loop remained elusive. So in 1993, NASA turned to its new Russian partners for help.

SCOTT CROOMES: We looked around at what assets they really had within their space program, things they did very well, that we could take advantage of. One of those was the provision of life support early on for a small crew.

By this time, the Russians had more than 20 years of experience keeping people alive in space.

More than 100 cosmonauts had lived for months at a time aboard their Salyut and Mir space stations.

While the Americans were still drawing up grandiose plans, the Russians were taking a practical approach - and getting results.

LEONID GORSHKOV: The American mistake was to try to build an enormous station. That's the American way. If you're going to do it, then do it big.

Our way was to make a more modest station, to try to solve the basic problems.

NARRATOR: To make long stays in space possible, engineers at this institute outside Moscow developed a system for supplying fresh water aboard Mir.

They are especially proud of this machine, which uses heat to reclaim clear water from every conceivable source - even urine.

NIKOLAI SAMSONOV: When we started this work, all of us here were the first to try the water generated from urine. So I can assure you personally that the quality is high.

These engineers have also developed systems for removing excess carbon dioxide from air, and for generating oxygen from water and chemical reactions.

NIKOLAI SAMSONOV: As for the atmosphere at our station, the air is cleaner than in California.

LEONID GORSHKOV: My friends and I always said, don't do it the American way. Do it the Russian way.

The air and water recycling systems used aboard Mir were thoroughly evaluated by Boeing, NASA's leading contractor on the space station.

And Boeing's engineers were impressed with the results.

BOB CURTIS: From working with the Russians, we've learned you don't have to have extremely sophisticated support equipment in order to have something that's reliable and functioning.

They've had their station there for 10 years, they've had their life-support system for 10 years.

One thing that we've found is when they say that they have a specification, it works that way.

NARRATOR: So rather than re-invent the wheel, NASA decided that the quickest and cheapest way to get the space station off the ground was to incorporate these proven air and water systems into a single, Russian-built module - The Service Module.

That fateful decision - to rely so heavily on Russian hardware - lies at the heart of the current crisis.

JAMES OBERG: It was a reasonable idea at the time, but it created a situation in which the Russian equipment had no backup.

It was the only way to have life support, was the Russian hardware. It was the only way to propel the station to a higher orbit, was the Russian hardware.

It put them, in the phrase, in the critical path. Our parts were worthless without their parts.

NARRATOR: Work on the Service Module began to fall behind schedule almost as soon as it began.

By 1997, the delays had reached crisis proportions.

During an inspection visit, Congressman Sensenbrenner blew up at the factory director.

SENSENBRENNER: Your firm did not meet the schedule that was agreed by Gore and Chernomyrdin in Moscow last July -

SENSENBRENNER: I was upset because I saw the Service Module and it looked no different than my previous visit to the Khrunichev plant 13 months earlier.

Their failure to work on the Service Module was delaying this very important scientific project, which was the largest international cooperation project since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The problem did not lie with Russian engineers or workers. They had delivered the station's first piece, Zarya, on time and on budget.

But in that case they were working as contractors for hire. The money for Zarya came directly from NASA, and the work was supervised by Americans.

The Service Module is a different story. It is the first piece for which the Russian government is supposed to foot the bill.

SENSENBRENNER: Bringing their engineers and their technical expertise into the space station partnership was a good idea, and I supported that. But this is not a question of a Russian technical failure. It is a question of a Russian political and economic failure.

JAMES SENSENBRENNER: You have testified before this committee - Mr. Goldin, why did you tell us you were ready when apparently we weren't ready?

DAN GOLDIN: I didn't say we were ready to launch at those points in time. We thought at the future point in time we would be ready, and we were not -

NARRATOR: With the Service Module falling farther and farther behind schedule, Dan Goldin was forced to appeal to Congress for more money.

Money to help Russia meet its commitments, and to build American backups for Russian hardware.

SENSENBRENNER: The Russians have got the rest of the world over a barrel. And they know it and they're taking advantage of it.

They just have decided that the way to get more money into Russia is to delay the Service Module and then hit up NASA for their failures.

CONTROLLER: Three, two, one, and liftoff of Space Shuttle Discovery...

NARRATOR: The delays in the Service Module have added billions to the cost of the station.

With Zarya and Unity in orbit, NASA launched a second assembly mission in May 1999.

But with no Service Module in place, many of its goals had to be scrapped.

The crew instead spent much of its time on routine maintenance - changing air filters, replacing faulty batteries, and hauling equipment from the shuttle.

ASTRONAUT: We're kinda hurrying up real quick here because we don't want to be late for when Ellen has another bag for us to stow.

NARRATOR: They were barely back on the ground before another problem flared up.

Two of Russia's normally reliable Proton rockets blew up after takeoff, raining debris on the backyards of local residents.

The Russian Space Agency halted all Proton launches pending an investigation.

The Service Module, ready or not, would be grounded until well into 2000, and yet another mission would be needed to repair and re-boost the two pieces already in orbit.

In deciding to launch Zarya and Unity, NASA had banked on Russian assurances that the Service Module would soon be ready to follow.

But the gamble has backfired.

JAMES OBERG: That was a decision to go ahead and launch something, anything for psychological reasons, for political reasons.

It was, in a football analogy, the longest Hail Mary pass in history, because you all go down field, throw that ball and hope someone eventually catches it. They still haven't caught it. It's still up there. Those pieces are up there getting old, breaking down, and wearing out.

NARRATOR: In early 2000, Dan Goldin issued an ultimatum to the Russians through the press: Launch the Service Module by July, or else.

NASA had been quietly working on a substitute.

Three years earlier, just in case the Russians didn't come through, Goldin had asked the Naval Research Lab to convert an old spy satellite launch vehicle into a stopgap device called the Interim Control Module.

Because it carries no life support system, the ICM would not allow a permanent crew to move into the station.

But it would provide enough additional propulsion and guidance to allow visiting crews to resume construction.

Russia has recently fixed its Proton rockets and assured NASA the Service Module will be ready to launch by July.

JAMES SENSENBRENNER: Every other launch date the Russians have told the partnership, the Russians themselves have failed to meet. So let's put it this way: If the Service Module is launched in July, as presently promised, I would be very pleasantly surprised.

NARRATOR: Even if the Service Module does finally join Zarya and Unity, NASA's troubles may not be over. There is a new worry on the horizon, one that casts doubt on the future of the troubled partnership. NASA is suddenly facing competition from another space station - Mir.

PETER JENNINGS: An American millionaire has agreed today to pay the Russian Space Agency $20 million so they can start bringing the Mir space station back to life.

NARRATOR: The millionaire's name is Walt Anderson.

In late 1999, he stepped in to save Russia's recently abandoned Mir space station from the scrap heap.

WALT ANDERSON: There are customers that want to do pharmaceutical manufacturing. There are people who want to travel to Mir as space tourists, there are people that want to do silly advertisements on the Mir. All those things are possible.

NARRATOR: The idea that tourists would want to spend $20 million for a 10-day Mir vacation was hard to take seriously. But it soon became clear this was no lark.

Anderson's investment helped launch MirCorp, a company committed to keeping Mir aloft for many more years.

The real power behind MirCorp is Energia, the huge Russian space contractor that built and still owns Mir.

At a press conference in London, MirCorp President Jeffrey Manber announced the signing of an agreement with Energia.

JEFFREY MANBER: For the first time a manned orbital station is being funded solely from non-government sources.

NARRATOR: MirCorp's goal is to turn Mir into a for-profit micro-gravity laboratory in direct competition with the International Space Station.

JEFFREY MANBER: A lot of companies and a lot of governments have millions of dollars worth of equipment on the Mir, and it was just going to be destroyed, and they've come to us and said, "If this is serious, if you're really keeping the Mir space station in orbit, we have equipment up there. We have researchers that would sure love to use it."

NARRATOR: For those already worried about the Russian partnership, it was like a nightmare come true.

JAMES SENSENBRENNER: It is profoundly disturbing, because their decision to keep Mir aloft means that they are not going to be concentrating their national resources on their share of the ISS as they promised.

NARRATOR: Sinking $20 million into Russia's aging space station may seem like a questionable investment, because a few years ago, while American astronauts were aboard, Mir suffered a series of mishaps that put it on front pages around the world.

WILLIAM BURROWS: In '97, you had a very serious accident on Mir. In fact, you had several serious accidents.

NARRATOR: First a fire, then a life-threatening collision. An unmanned Russian cargo ship rammed into Mir, punching a hole in one of the modules and mangling a solar array.

WILLIAM BURROWS: There was a lot of very bad publicity. And most Americans tend to think of it as kind of a flying junk heap.

NARRATOR: NASA used the shuttle to help repair Mir so that American astronauts could continue gaining experience aboard the station.

But after the last American left in 1998, NASA began to see Mir as a distraction, draining Russian resources and manpower that were badly needed on the international station.

So when the Russians finally announced they would abandon the aging station and let it spiral into the ocean, NASA welcomed the end of an era.

But thanks to MirCorp, that era may not be over just yet.

JEFFREY MANBER: I think NASA was very surprised that something they had thought was going to happen, the de-orbiting of Mir, did not happen.

And they did call me up and say the Russians promised us that the Mir would come down.

That's not true. What the Russian government always said was, "We have ceased our funding of the Mir space station. Should there be commercial money, we'll keep it up."

We see something worth several billion dollars that you're about to spend $100 million to bring it down and destroy it. Why don't we spend the $100 million to keep it up there and open it for business?

NARRATOR: Patching up Mir may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. While the station's core module is 14 years old, its youngest is only five. By replacing old modules as they wear out, MirCorp hopes to keep it aloft indefinitely.

JAMES OBERG: Mir has its own problems, but it's in much better condition now than it was three years ago, largely due to NASA. Nine shuttle flights brought up hardware, supplies, that totally rejuvenated the interior systems of Mir.

NARRATOR: While it's too soon to tell if MirCorp can turn this antique into a profit center, this latest twist clearly reflects Russia's reluctance to let go of the past.

JAMES OBERG: For the Russians, Mir is a symbol. It's the last symbol of what they once were, a world-class space power.

To accept the role of a junior partner in an international team was always galling to them, but for many of them it was practical, the only way it was going to work.

Now that they're through the worst parts of their economy, economic problems, now they have a government that's much more nationalistic, the idea of keeping their own station and letting the international project have whatever's left over is almost unanimous.

LEONID GORSHKOV: Emotionally, Mir is much dearer to me than the International Space Station. It's like my own child. My colleagues and I are determined to save it.

NARRATOR: The potential impact of this new development became clear when Russia launched an unmanned Progress cargo ship to Mir in preparation for a manned repair mission a few months later.

Both the rocket and the cargo ship had been earmarked for the International Space Station and partly paid for by NASA.

JAMES OBERG: Goldin was taken on a tour of the floor of the building where they were being built by the Energia official - Yuri Semenov.

And he was shown - this vehicle - thank you for the money, we're completing it. These vehicles - thank you for the money to help us finish them. Those are the vehicles that are being used for space station.

Six months later, those vehicles were diverted to keep Mir going, even though American money had helped finish them.

JEFFREY MANBER: In very technical terms, we used a vehicle scheduled for ISS, and it's really good we did, because it was getting old.

When ISS is ready, my colleagues at Energia have assured MirCorp, have assured NASA, have assured their government that there will be a new Progress ready for ISS.

NARRATOR: But NASA is worried that Russia's renewed interest in Mir will keep it from fulfilling its promises to the international station.

DAN GOLDIN: We do not have any right to tell the Russians what to do with their Mir space station, but if we found that the Russians were going to fund Mir and continue its operation and not fund the International Space Station, there would be very serious levels of concern on our part.

NARRATOR: Over the next few years, NASA is counting on Russia for many key contributions besides the Service Module. Most critical are the rockets and capsules needed to re-supply the station.

JAMES OBERG: A diversion of resources to Mir is one more major threat to the International Space Station.

It's a diversion, not just of rockets and capsules, but of key personnel. Yet we know that the challenges of putting together the space station - as its first flights have shown - are going to be immense, complex, frightening.

We need the best people over there full-time, concentrating on our new projects. And it's not happening.

NARRATOR: This ambitious project, begun with such hope just a few years ago, now faces an uncertain future.

Will the Russians ever become a reliable partner?

Would the International Space Station be better off without them?

LEONID GORSHKOV: Realistically, Russia has no choice. Somehow it will be resolved. If we backed out of the International Space Station project, the scandal would be huge, and who would ever trust Russia again?

JAMES SENSENBRENNER: We would be doing very well to kick Russia out of the partnership and to treat them as a contractor, because where we have treated them as a contractor, so far they've done a world-class job.

NARRATOR: But treating the Russians as contractors would leave America paying a larger share.

With the cost of building and servicing the station now expected to top $100 billion, that may be a hard sell.

WILLIAM BURROWS: If the Russians can't keep up, we're going to have to do a lot of rethinking, because a lot of people in Congress are then going to say, "Ha! They're out of it, and now we've got to pick up the ball.

NASA, you didn't sell the space station by saying we were going to have to do that. You sold it by saying that all these nations were going to participate, including the Russians.

Now the Russians are gone, and you're telling us that the American taxpayer is going to have to soak up that difference? Uh-uh.

DAN GOLDIN: You have problems -

NARRATOR: Despite the difficulties with the Russians, Dan Goldin is determined that the partnership he brokered will work out in the end.

DAN GOLDIN: I don't want to sound like a Pollyanna, but we will somehow, some way, get through this. And when we get through the eye of the needle, we're going to have and incredible facility that will not be a Western bloc station, but will involve people on both sides.

ASTRONAUT: Let me read these two numbers to you -

NARRATOR: For NASA, the stakes are enormous.

Collapse of the space station project would leave the shuttle with no place to fly to, and America's manned space program with no clear mission.

A successful space station would forge international alliances that lay the groundwork for the more daunting challenges that lie ahead in space - a permanent moon base or a voyage to Mars.

BOB CABANA: We could have built this by ourselves a lot easier. It just would have been money. I mean, but the point is, is that the right thing to do? And the right thing to do is to work together, and that's what we're dong. We're learning how to work together.

NARRATOR: Whatever America's future in space, it's a good bet that the Russians will be up there too. Whether as partners or competitors, the fates of the two great space faring nations seem destined to be intertwined, as they have been for over 40 years.

JAMES OBERG: When I first met some Russian space engineers who were visiting NASA here about ten years ago, they were heartbroken that they had failed to get to the moon first, that the Americans had sent the Apollo astronauts to the moon, their program was a failure.

I told them as best I could that their program had had the ultimate success of pressing the American program on. That the spy satellite pictures of the Russian moon rockets had been the only reason that the U.S. had continued and finally succeeded in landing on the Moon. That it was due to their pressure on us.

They thought that was such a wonderful thought that we all hugged and cried for awhile, but it just showed that there is this relationship.

We're going through a phase now, there'll be new phases. We're both in the space program, we're both in the space business, for the duration.

NARRATOR: What components are the 15 international partners contributing to the space station? Assemble it yourself and find out on NOVA's Website at PBS.org or America Online keyword PBS.

Educators can order this or any other NOVA program for $19.95 plus shipping and handling. Call WGBH-Boston video at 1-800-255-9424.

Coming soon on NOVA, beyond the myths of savagery and merciless conquest lies the compelling real story of the super power of the Dark Ages - The Vikings.

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