NASA's international colleagues fear budget overruns and delays could scupper plans

NASA's partners in the International Space Station (ISS) are expressing concern to the US Government about the space agency's ability to complete the programme in light of serious budget overruns and schedule delays. These have already resulted in a cut in science activity and delays to the launch of international equipment.

The partners' moves have been prompted by scathing criticism of NASA's management of the ISS programme in a report by an independent task force released earlier this month.

NASA is expected to react to the cost overruns by delaying launches and rationalising science plans. The European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan have already suffered delays to the launch of their hardware, with ESA's Columbus module pushed back possibly to 2006. Work on this component began in 1984 with a view to launch in the mid-1990s.

A reduction of the ISS resident crew to three and a cut in Space Shuttle flights will limit the already reduced flights to the ISS by non-US astronauts.

ESA and Canada have written to the US Congress and State Department expressing concern about NASA's ability to keep the ISS project afloat, while Japan has voiced its fears in a separate despatch to the US Government.

Russia, however, is keen to take advantage of the situation by offering to dock two Soyuz TM spacecraft to the ISS during an extended swap-over of the emergency crew return craft, thereby increasing the crew to six.

Rosaviakosmos says that, under the terms of its 1996 agreement with NASA and other ISS partners, the country will stop providing nationally funded flights of the Soyuz TM space ferry to the station in January 2005. Further flights will be made available on a commercial basis, according to the Russian space agency.

The US House and Senate appropriations committees have, meanwhile, agreed a $14.8 billion budget for NASA next year, a $508 million increase over this year. The ISS budget will be capped over the next four years, however. NASA has amassed an $8 billion overrun in the past four years.

If approved, the budget will see a reduction of $95 million in funds available for the ISS, but an additional $40 million will go to continuing work on a proposed Crew Return Vehicle, the X-38, cancelled by President Bush.

The committee has cleared the ISS to be completed to the stage agreed earlier this year after President Bush ordered cuts, which does not include the habitation and propulsion modules. The "US Core Complete" plan has been criticised by ISS international partners, however, which say that it compromises their original ISS agreements.

Source: Flight International