Tim Furniss/LONDON

A new launch date has been set for the first component of the International Space Station (ISS), with the Russian-built Control Module now due to be launched on 20 November, five months late.

A date had been set for June, but the launch of this initial Module was delayed as it became clear that cash-strapped Russia was likely to be late with its delivery of the core Service Module. That is not now due for launch until 28 March, 1999, and NASA says that it made no sense to have the initial ISS components in orbit longer than necessary.

The Control Module, formerly known as the FGB, is the only Russian component to be built with US help, under a $200 million contract. Other components are funded nationally, including the Service Module.

NASA has criticised the late delivery of the Service Module, caused, says Russia, by lack of money. US components, too, have been delayed, with computer software problems cited as a major cause.

NASA's first Node 1 element, dubbed Unity, plus pressurised mating adapters to be joined to the Control Module, will be carried aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour STS88, which will be flying on 3 December, over a year late according to earlier schedules.

If the Service Module is launched safely and the ISS has been supported by at least one further Space Shuttle mission, the first crew to inhabit the fledgling station will be launched in mid-1999. The three man crew - two Russians and one US astronaut - will be launched in a Soyuz TM from Baikonur.

Although NASA has published an assembly launch sequence for later missions, nothing can be certain until the first launches have created the impetus and the ISS finally starts operations. Completion of the station will take a further five years, NASA estimates.

Russia's attempt to delay the decommissioning and de-orbiting of the Mir 1 space station as long as possible into 2000 is being criticised by NASA because the US space agency believes it will use up critical Russian financial and hardware resources, including spacecraft and launchers. As Russia earns hard cash from flying foreign cosmonauts, it is still promoting the station commercially.

The US agency is also under heavy criticism from Congress about delays and budget overruns. Independent assessors appointed by Congress estimate that, by completion, the ISS will have cost US taxpayers another $7 billion over the $17 billion agreed in 1992. This does not include operational costs, the money already spent since the project's inception in 1984 and Shuttle assembly flights, estimated at over $30 billion.

NASA will save some money this year by a cut in the number of Space Shuttle flights to four, compared with nine in 1985 and eight each in 1992 and 1997. Each mission costs an estimated $400 million.

There have been two Shuttle missions so far this year and the STS91/Discovery was due to have been launched on 2 June on the ninth and last Shuttle Mir Mission.

It is to be followed by STS95/ Discovery, carrying space pioneer Senator John Glenn, on 29 October. The STS93/Columbia, carrying the Advanced X-Ray Astrophysics Facility will be delayed until January 1999.

Source: Flight International