Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 217

Friday’s successful launch notwithstanding, officials connected to the space station effort have made clear that the ISS project is a daunting one in every way. They have also indicated that further delays and missteps are probably unavoidable, and that the chances for major reversals–or even catastrophic failures–cannot be ruled out.

The instability and chronic indebtedness of Russia’s space program remain perhaps the most unsettling of those dangers which can be perceived today. On the one hand, the Russians bring undeniable and crucial strengths to the space project. The most obvious of these is their unsurpassed experience in long-duration space travel. The Clinton administration also saw Russian participation in the project as a means to promote post-Cold War cooperation between Russia and the United States. Later, as Russia’s economy worsened, that same participation was seen in part as a way to keep Russian scientists with unique skills and experience from peddling their knowledge outside Russia.

The Russian government’s chronic financial problems have left the country’s space establishment in desperate shape however, with severely adverse consequences for the International Space Station project. According to Russian Space Agency Chief Yuri Koptev, the government has provided his agency with less than half of some US$200 million incurred in costs this year for the ISS project and for maintaining Russia’s older space project, the space station Mir. In addition, Koptev claims, the government owes the space agency some US$45 million from last year (AP, October 13).

Russia’s costs connected with the ISS, moreover, are expected to rise dramatically in the years to come, when Moscow is obligated to monitor, control and supply the station. Those costs, which could reach some US$400 million per year, could be too much for the Russian space establishment and could compel Moscow to withdraw from the project (Washington Post, November 18). A scenario of that sort would be debilitating for the ISS project. It would also be humiliating for Russia–once a great space power–and raise add new tensions in Russian-American relations. It was with such considerations in mind that NASA announced in October an aid package to provide the Russian space program with US$60 million in additional funding to ensure completion of both Zarya and the central service module–the third component of the space station–which is scheduled to be launched in July (Itar-Tass, October 16; UPI, November 4; Washington Post, November 21).

But Russia and the United States may now be heading for a clash over Moscow’s handling of the aging Mir space station. Russian space officials had pledged earlier this fall that they would retire Mir next summer so that they could devote their meager resources entirely to the ISS project. In recent days, however, those same officials appear to have had a change of heart and are now talking about prolonging Mir’s life. NASA has, for the time being, taken a quiet approach to the Russian statements. Dan Goldin, head of NASA, said that the United States was unconcerned about Mir so long as Russia met its obligations to the ISS project (Reuters, November 20). Another NASA official, deputy manager of operations for the space station James Van Laak, warned that NASA would consider Russian efforts to save Mir “unacceptable” if they had “any measurable impact on the international space station” (New York Times, November 21).