Cash-starved Russia could be ousted from the Alpha International Space Station project.

Tim Furniss/LONDON

NASA ASTRONAUT SHANNON Lucid is now aboard the Russian space station Mir 1, having been delivered on the third Shuttle Mir Mission (SMM). Fellow astronaut Bill Shepherd, due to fly with two Russians in May 1988, has been named as the first commander of the International Space Station called - so far - the Alpha, which at that stage will be largely Russian.

Everything appears to be bright for the future of US-Russian co-operation in space, but this is not the case. Lucid, accompanied by two Russian colleagues, is waiting for the much-delayed Russian Priroda module to arrive bearing equipment to keep her occupied. Russia is also unhappy about having a US commander designated to control the Alpha. NASA, meanwhile, also faces further budget cuts - and the space station is undergoing another crisis.


Russia's shortage of cash, and delays in producing modules for the Alpha are worrying NASA so much that the USA is threatening to oust its new partner from the project. Russia is supposed to contribute $3.5 billion to the Space Station over the next six years, compared with NASA's $20 billion. Yet Russia's space budget is now running at just one-tenth that of the $2.9 billion allocated to it in 1989. Space is not seen as a priority when food is short and inflation rampant.

Yuri Koptev, director of the Russian Space Agency, has been assured by the Kremlin, that the situation will improve and modules will be delivered in time. President Boris Yeltsin made the right political noises supporting space programmes during celebrations on 12 April to mark the 35th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first spaceflight. The strain is telling, however. Koptev hoped to receive $650 million for his space projects this year, but has so far received a commitment for only $290 million.

The USA has also given and committed much aid to Russia, while Russian companies have now begun to win space contracts, attracting business worth over $300 million in 1995. A further $750 million could be earned by the year 2000. The problem is, however, that the money is insufficient and does not necessarily find its way to the right places. NASA is also ruffled that Russia plans to offer space aboard its portion of the Alpha to visiting countries, in the same way that it markets flights to the Mir 1 space station at $17 million a visit.

NASA is applying pressure now, aware that, on 16 June, Yeltsin goes to the polls. If he is ousted, US/Russian manned-space co-operation could be affected permanently. An exasperated NASA - which is spending $2.1 billion a year on the Alpha - has already made contingency plans to begin construction of the Space Station without Russian hardware - even moving to the original 28¡ orbit, thus giving the Shuttle more lifting capability. This lower-inclination course was surrendered for a 51¡ trajectory when the then-desperate NASA tied a knot with Russia to save the Alpha from the US Congressional axe in 1994. The Space Station is still in danger, however.

More budget cuts are looming as NASA is being asked by US President Bill Clinton - bidding for re-election this year - to absorb another $3.3 billion reduction in its budget over four years, in addition to the $5 billion cut it is already trying to accommodate in 2000. Its budget in 2000 could be $11 billion, representing a 26% decline in spending since 1992. Russian problems only add to doubts about the project in the Congress (Flight International, 15-21 November 1995).

International co-operation was identified as NASA's only way of getting former President Ronald Reagan to give the Space Station the go-ahead in 1984. The other (so far) faithful international partners (Canada, Europe and Japan) must now wonder whether their equipment will ever get into space. The spectre of a Space Space Shuttle accident also haunts Station flight-schedule planners (Flight International, 29 November-5 December, 1995).

Despite US gripes about Russia's difficulties, Russia could be equally concerned about the dependability of the US Space Shuttle fleet to be used in the construction and maintenance of the Alpha. Shuttle delays, which are not uncommon, but are becoming rarer, could also threaten the Alpha schedule, and one accident could jeopardise the whole programme. More than 70 Shuttle missions - there have been 76 since 1981 - will be needed to complete the Alpha, starting in November 1998 (Flight International, 22-28 September, 1995).

Critics claim, that Russia has for years, operated the Soyuz, a reliable manned delivery system compared with the Shuttle, launching in all weathers and largely on time. It has carried 23 crews to the Mir space station and hosted 14 foreign astronauts (earning Russia $74 million) since 1986. NASA has launched 51 Space Shuttles in the same period.

Realising its financial predicament, Russia earlier suggested to NASA, that its existing Mir space base be used as the initial basis for the Alpha station to, which US and other hardware could be added. Although the Mir core module, has been in space for ten years, other modules are newer and the final piece of the Mir jigsaw the Priroda module, is scheduled to be docked to the station "soon", says Russia - the latest estimate is 26 April.

This much-delayed module is carrying 35 science experiments and other equipment for NASA's Lucid, which, if it does not arrive in time, will reduce the US astronaut to the level of under-utilisation experienced by the first US occupier of the Mir, Norman Thagard in 1995. Lucid is due to return to the Earth in the middle of August


Using Russia's Soyuz TM delivery system and US Shuttle flights, a workable international station could be completed early, Russia says, adding that it would be a "sin" to retire the Mir 1 prematurely. If there were to be problems with the Shuttle, astronauts could fly on the Soyuz TM (as Shepherd will with his Russian partner Sergei Krikalev and an unnamed Russian TM commander, when they fly to the Alpha) but large-haul deliveries would be delayed. NASA quashed the Mir idea quickly, adhering to its grand Alpha design, for which Russia would have to produce and deliver new modules.

Ironically, the Mir suits NASA now, proving to be excellent for the preparatory SMM missions, which will involve long-duration flights by several NASA astronauts - Lucid included - through to 1998. Indeed, NASA has added two more SMM missions to help Russia save costs on launching new equipment to keep the Mir operational longer. With the SMM programme, NASA obtains long-duration flight experience and the Russians receive heavy-lift logistics deliveries, for which the USA is paying $535 million in return for the flight experience (Flight International, 20-26 March).

If the Alpha schedule is to be met, however, the world could witness the incongruous sight of not one, but two space stations, the Alpha and the Mir, both manned by Russian and US crews. This, it is claimed, will be a natural transition period before the Mir is abandoned. The current crisis - perhaps it should be termed a continuous crisis given its tortuous history - may well see the Mir proving to be a more long-term solution. It is likely to be operational after 2000.

The focus of the crisis used to be Russia's Functional Energy Block (FGB) a Salyut-based electrical and propulsion module scheduled to be launched in November 1997 to kick off the Alpha project. This will be joined by the first US hardware the following month. By May 1998, Russia permitting, it will be possible to man the station. Completion of the station is scheduled for 2002, by which time the European and Japanese modules should be attached. Canada's remote-manipulator system for the Space Station will be required earlier for construction.

The FGB - being built by Boeing and Khrunichev and for which Russia, ironically, is being paid over $200 million - has been delayed by the national cash crisis and damage during pressure-testing at Khrunichev. NASA is getting worried, the more so since Russia's other planned modules and launchers - which it will have to contribute free of charge - are threatened with delays.

The Alpha assembly schedule has already been amended to reflect Russian delays, and yet more Shuttle flights to carry Russian equipment have been added. A Russian science power platform (and its solar arrays), which was to have been launched using three Russian-launched Zenit boosters, will now be carried on a US Shuttle flight in 1999 - delaying Japan's module.

Now, the new focus of concern is the Russian service module, a Mir 1 core-module- class craft, which has to be launched in April 1998 to allow the Shepherd crew to man the new Station. The module will provide the living quarters, guidance, navigation and control for the fledgling Station. Khrunichev has told NASA that, although the hull is complete, work will have to stop soon, as there is no more money. Russia had indicated, its problems when it suggested the Mir alternative and asked NASA for another $200 million to help build the service module. Although the FGB could be used to support the Shepherd crew, it lacks back-up life support and true living quarters and would not allow long-duration stays without the attendance of the Shuttle. NASA has therefore designed its own control/propulsion module as an alternative to the Russian FGB/service-module combination as a contingency.

The Alpha debate reached farcical proportions in 1995 when NASA discovered that nearly half of its astronauts would not fit safely inside the Soyuz TM module, which is designed to be an emergency-return vehicle permanently docked on standby at the Alpha, while a similar NASA vehicle is possibly under development. NASA is now paying Russia to modify the accommodation inside the TM.

NASA has told Russia that any more requests for assistance will result in a rebuff and it will go it alone. The irony is that neither the USA nor Russia is in a financial or political position to build a new space station without each other's assistance. With Canadian, European and Japanese bridesmaids waiting at the church door, it seems a bad time to call off the wedding, especially as the couple have started living together quite successfully on the Mir.

Source: Flight International