Space Station Faces Debris Threat

WASHINGTON--The Russian components of the international space station may not adequately protect crews and equipment, says a report released here yesterday by the U.S. National Research Council. The report casts further doubt on the viability of the Russian modules, which have already been delayed because of a funding shortage.

The NASA-funded study--Protecting the Space Station from Micrometeoroids and Orbital Debris--warns that the Russian portions of the station may lack adequate shielding from high-speed flotsam and jetsam in orbit. The U.S., European, Japanese, and Russian station partners have agreed to design their respective pieces so that an aluminum sphere 1 centimeter across cannot penetrate the station's walls and cause damage. But budget troubles and time pressures to complete the station--expected to have a permanent crew shortly after 2000--will make it hard for Russia to meet the requirements. Instead, the Russian Space Agency (RSA) intends to add shielding once its modules are in orbit. RSA officials could not be reached for comment.

The report, chaired by retired TRW engineer George Gleghorn, urges NASA to work more closely with RSA to ensure that the results are acceptable. But its suggestion that partners consider using advanced shielding materials--beyond what the U.S., Japan, and Canada are now planning to use to minimize the threat of punctures--would force governments to find more money for a project already strapped for cash.