Russians Still in Station Program, But Launches Delayed

Funding problems in Russia have led to an 8-month delay in the planned launch of the first pieces of the international space station. The initial launch will now occur in June 1998, NASA announced today. But NASA space-station chief Randy Brinkley told a press conference that the rubles needed to build key portions of the $30 billion orbiting laboratory are finally flowing, and as a result, Russia will remain in the 15-nation partnership building the behemoth.

The delay, however, will drive up costs for NASA by $150 million to $200 million. For example, the Functional Cargo Block, now slated for the first launch, must be redesigned to include some of the control features of the service module--the main Russian contribution postponed to the end of 1998 by Moscow's funding problems. NASA will also need contingency studies in case the Russians fail to meet their obligations.

But Brinkley believes the Russians will come through. "The funding problem is behind us," he told reporters. Of the 1.5 trillion rubles needed this year for Russian hardware construction, a third has been released to the Russian Space Agency. Another 300 billion is due by the end of May, with the rest to come this summer. And according to NASA officials recently in Moscow, industry contractors are already spending the money on station components. "We opened boxes ...," says Brinkley, "and put our hands on components that cost money."

Not everyone is convinced. Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who chairs the House Science Committee, told ScienceNOW that he is unhappy with the agency decision to keep Russia on the critical path. "I don't think we can trust the Russians for anything," he says.