Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 127

Russia’s long-delayed and much-maligned Zvezda space module is at last set for launch, Russian and U.S. space officials announced this week. The module, a 24-ton cylinder which will serve as the living quarters for the International Space Station’s (ISS) permanent crew, is to be launched on a proton rocket from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 12.

The event will come some two years after the originally planned launch date. The delay has been attributed to funding shortages and mismanagement by Energia, the Russian company which has built the module. Perhaps attempting to put the best face on a bad situation, U.S. officials have suggested that the long delay was, in fact, of some benefit, both insofar as it allowed NASA to work out some software bugs of its own and because it has improved the ability of Russian and U.S. space personnel to work together. For all of that, the delays in launching the Zvezda module are estimated to have cost NASA as much as US$3 billion. The U.S. invited Moscow to join the sixteen-nation US$60 billion International Space Station effort in 1993 in hopes not only of tapping Russia’s long experience in living in space, but because it was thought Moscow’s cooperation could help the ISS project save money.

Yesterday’s announcement follows last month’s successful visit to the two orbiting components of the ISS–the Russian-made Zarya and the U.S. manufactured Unity modules–by the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis. In the course of nearly a week docked to the space station, the Atlantis boosted the faltering orbit of the ISS, while its crew replaced four of the six batteries in the Zarya module, installed new fans and smoke detectors, delivered fresh water for future use, and also replaced a faulty radio antennae. The astronauts were the first crew to visit the ISS in a year, but that should change in the coming months as the pace of launches to the ISS increases. NASA is now aiming at an October 30 launch date for the liftoff of a first crew to the ISS, although some observers are saying that that schedule may be optimistic.

In Moscow, meanwhile, Russian space officials have been fending off accusations that they are responsible for a host of technical problems related to both the Zarya and Zvezda modules. Detractors, including the U.S. General Accounting Office, point to what they say are bad air, excessive noise, and compromised safety standards on the space station. One U.S. lawmaker has charged that “it is clear that NASA is lowering safety standards in order to allow Russia to participate” in the ISS project. Scientists at Russia’s Khrunichev Space Center have dismissed the criticism. They say that Boeing representatives were present at any every stage in the completion of the Zarya module. They also suggest that many of the problems in the currently orbiting space station are easily remedied, and that they are more a matter of working out initial bugs than the result of construction shortcomings (Reuters, June 28; AP, June 26;, May 30, June 10, 26, Washington Post, May 30).