A full-scale model of Russia's 20t Functional Cargo Block (FGB) module and its Proton launcher will be among the highlights of the space displays at the Paris air show, demonstrating that the International Space Station (ISS) programme is still alive.

The real FGB will be the first ISS module to be launched, in June 1998. A Russian Service Module is to be launched in December the same year and, in January 1999, a Russian Soyuz TM will carry the first international crew to the Station. By then it will also consist of US equipment launched on three Shuttle flights, two of which have been added to a new baseline manifest issued by NASA. One mission has been brought forward, the other is a new one.

There is still uncertainty over Russia's ability to meet the financial commitments and flight schedules required to complete construction of the ISS by 2003. The much-delayed project has been hit more recently by a lack of Russian funding, which has slowed completion of the Service Module by at least eight months. One of the two additional Shuttle flights will carry the US Interim Control Module (ICM) if the Service Module is delayed any further, ensuring that NASA can continue with station assembly without Russia.

The Russian Government has committed, but not yet fully released, $300 million to ensure that the first phase of the ISS can be completed on time. If finding $300 million is a problem, questions remain over how Russia can come up with its estimated $3.2 billion funding over the next six years.

NASA has always had problems selling the space-station concept. Making it international is what persuaded US President Ronald Reagan in 1984. That did not stop the station facing a tortuous ten years of budget fights and constant redesigns, which have already cost $30 billion.


Shuttle dependent

The more recent decision to allow Russian participation probably saved the ISS from cancellation, but created new problems for NASA. Russian delays have meant NASA investing an extra $200 million in the ICM. US Congress is again keeping a wary eye on the project - not surprisingly, as it will cost NASA $17 billion to assemble the station, not including the expense of 33 Shuttle launches. By 2002, it will have spent $60 billion on the ISS since 1984 and, by 2012, another $40 billion on operating it. Many more delays will be regarded as intolerable, especially if they are caused by Russia.

The ISS schedule depends greatly on the continued success of the Space Shuttle, which has had 58 successful launches since the Challenger accident (flight 25) in January 1986. Two flights, the STS44 and, more recently, the STS83 were ended prematurely by technical problems, and a more serious malfunction could have enormous ramifications on the ISS programme. Three of the four Shuttle orbiters, the Discovery, Atlantis and the Endeavour, will be employed for ISS missions. The Columbia is too heavy for ISS work.

Russia has dominated the ISS saga for months, and the effect of the delays to the ISS on the original international partners - Europe, Japan and Canada - have been rather overlooked. While Canada's robotic remote-manipulator system is guaranteed an early ride, Japan's Experiment Module will not be complete until 2002. NASA can not even give a date for the launch of the European Space Agency's Columbus Orbital Facility (COF), which may not make it into space until 2003 - nine years later than planned when the Space Station was inaugurated by Reagan. Financial constraints in Europe have caused several projects to be curtailed or cancelled, so further delays to the COF - seemingly regarded by NASA as the poor relation of the ISS - may be regarded as intolerable to harassed national space ministers.

Russia's venerable Mir space station, the first module of which was launched in 1986, has, however, proved to be a valuable demonstration of the country's space capability and of the kind of work which can be done with the ISS. Commercial flights by several countries to the Mir have gained Russia much-needed cash, and have also demonstrated the success of international co-operation in space.

NASA's Shuttle Mir Missions and long-duration flights by astronauts represent another positive and invaluable step towards the co-operation needed for the Space Station. The ISS is not a paper station any longer. The first of the hardware is ready - and the countdown clock reads T-365 days and counting.

"This spacecraft is on the deck and we are number one on the runway," says Randy Brinkley, ISS project manager. This time there may not be any more hold-ups.

Source: Flight International