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How High a Price for ISS?

Russia's failure to meet its obligations to the International Space Station is prompting some in Washington to question the financially troubled country's involvement in the program.

By Don Davis

Photo courtesy of NASA The first modules of the International Space Station now orbit the Earth, but not everyone is happy about what it took to get them there. Though "officially" sponsored by 16 countries, the United States is paying most of the bills, and that fact has some lawmakers fuming, particularly when it comes to Russia's inability to pay its share.

While the ISS continues to enjoy considerable support from the public and many on Capitol Hill, some in Congress view the program as a costly boondoggle of questionable scientific merit that has mainly served to pump millions of dollars into a bankrupt Russian space program.

Proposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 at a cost of $8 billion, the station is now expected to cost more than $60 billion just to build, plus another $100 billion to operate. The Russians were brought into the program in 1993, shortly after the Soviet Union crumbled.

Russian Money Woes

From the beginning it was clear that Russia's ongoing fiscal crises would cause problems. The country couldn't even complete Zaraya, the station's first module, on time or without U.S. dollars. (And hopes aren't high for the scheduled July launch of a U.S.-built service module on a Russian rocket. The module is ready; the rocket isn't.)

ISS critic Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI) claims that these and other Russian delays and shortfalls have already increased NASA costs by $1.2 billion. And the Russian program remains cash-starved. Last October, the administration asked Congress for a $660 million bailout for the Russians-$60 million to finish near-term work and $600 million as a long-term investment.

Sensenbrenner reacted by introducing a measure that would not only prohibit further payments to the Russian Space Agency, but ban Russian involvement in key assembly operations and put a $21.9 billion cap on total U.S. contributions. The bill died with the end of the 105th Congress, but Sensenbrenner may reintroduce it.

As NASA and Congress bickered, the Russians came up with a plan that could only be termed as a distress sale. They've offered to give the U.S. their allocation of research time aboard the spacecraft for $60 million-enough cash to keep their program on track, at least in the short term.

NASA Chief Dan Goldin called the deal a bargain. Rep. Tim Roemer (D -IN) called it "a leveraged buyout of the Russian Space Agency." But, many lawmakers think the money earmarked for the ISS would be better spent on scientific and medical research here at home. To them, the benefits of the space station seem negligible.

The official line is that the station will not only help maintain U.S. leadership in space, but should also serve as a lab for new technologies and provide key microgravity research into such areas as biotechnology and fundamental physics.

And there is another, less tangible benefit: The ISS project has helped "occupy" Russian nuclear scientists and kept them from selling technologies to unfriendly nations.

Moreover, efforts to push out the Russians could result in false economizing. Whatever work the Russians don't do will increase NASA's workload-and costs.

Tough Decisions

Try as they may, congressional critics just can't manage to kill the project. And now that Zaraya and the U.S.-built Unity module, joined in December, are silently circumnavigating the globe, the United States is more committed than ever to finishing the job.

But there is a good chance that Washington will scrub further money launches to Moscow. That would reduce Russia to a peripheral role in this ongoing space saga, but might allow the troubled-yet-proud country to keep its own space drama, the beleaguered Mir station, in orbit. Despite's the station's well-publicized problems, it is still considered the country's last symbol of a world-class space program, and Russians do not want to see it go down in flames.

Russia knows it cannot afford to keep Mir in orbit and also foot its portion of the ISS bills, so in June 1998 officials reluctantly agreed to end the Mir program. However, in January, the Russian Space Agency announced that Mir would stay up after all, thanks to private funding that would not interfere with the country's obligations to the ISS. That announcement was withdrawn several days later, and space experts say Mir's fate is still unclear.

The fate of the ISS, however, seems assured. Barring a huge shift in public opinion, a major change in the occupants of the U.S. Capitol, or perhaps alien invasion, it looks like the sky's no limit-and neither is the budget-for the space station.

Don Davis is ASEE's public affairs associate.

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