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Space station's future in first crew's hands

From turning on the lights to flushing the toilet, crew will finally give life to embattled international project.

By DAVID BALLINGRUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000


CAPE CANAVERAL -- A big construction site typically is an ear-splitting jumble of hard hats and hardware, dust and debris.

But there is one serene exception.

One of the largest construction projects in history -- certainly the most complex -- is taking place without muss or fuss in the black silence of space, every move carefully planned and rehearsed, then executed with excruciating patience and care.

At long last, the international space station is a fact in space.

At 2:53 a.m. today, American astronaut Bill Shepherd and cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev were scheduled to blast off from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakstan aboard a Soyuz rocket. The arrival of the three men two days later will begin a planned four-month stay as the first members of a permanent space station crew.

Monday, mission manager John Curry says, might have been the last day in history without humans in space.

The shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis will follow in December and January with large solar power panels and a huge laboratory module, enabling science research to get under way next year.

When completed -- probably by 2006 -- the station will be as wide as two football fields, side-by-side. Scientists will work in five laboratories dedicated to physics, biology, medical research and studies of Earth's environment.

While construction takes place in the graceful slow-motion of space, it's a different picture on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center.

Half of the bulk of the space station -- about 500,000 pounds of hardware and equipment -- remains on the ground, moving slowly through the preparation pipeline, waiting for storage aboard the space shuttle and then a ride into space.

With a crowded flight schedule for the next year, the Kennedy Space Center has become a busy place.

"You can feel the adrenaline rush around here," spokesman George Diller said.

"This is an exciting time," said Russell Romanella, deputy director of the center's space station directorate. "We have gone from a paper program to a real hardware program.

"We are working harder than we have ever worked," he said. "If we are going to do the things we want to do in space, this program needs to be successful."

So far so good.

But recent successes make up only the latest chapter in a long, often dismal story.

Since it was proposed in 1984, and especially since it became a joint project with the Russian Space Agency and 15 other partner nations, the international space station has been a costly, embarrassing frustration.

Some critics go further and call it a failure. Its promise of important science research will never be met, they say.

"A monumental waste of time and money," the Economist concluded.

Originally seen as an $8-billion U.S. platform to pave the way to Mars, the station has grown into a multinational extravaganza with a final price somewhere between $70-billion and $100-billion -- most to be picked up by U.S. taxpayers.

In particular, the Russians and their recurrent financial problems have tested U.S. patience and resolve. They have blown deadlines, delivered substandard equipment and wavered in their commitment.

Even now, Russian supply flights are being reshuffled because of a shortage of cargo vehicles. Also, there are questions about the ability of the Russian-built crew quarters -- a module called Zvezda -- to withstand the long-term barrage of meteorites in space.

When Russia was invited to join the U.S.-led partnership of nations developing the station in 1993, it pledged contributions that included the Zvezda crew module and annual launchings of two Soyuz crew transport capsules and a handful of Progress cargo capsules.

But Zvezda reached the station in late July, more than two years late because of Russian money trouble. Because it was needed to house crew members, its tardiness logjammed numerous other flights.

There's more. The station is dependent on Russia for its rocket fuel supply, and there is doubt the Russians can keep their promise to provide it.

The unpiloted Russian Progress launches are the station's only source of fuel. The fuel is used by small thrusters that keep the station circling Earth at altitudes of about 240 miles. Without periodic reboosts, the space station could re-enter Earth's atmosphere.

Again, NASA had to come up with a plan in the event the Russians can't deliver. If necessary, the shuttle's thrusters will re-boost the station with each visit.

Members of the Russian space agency aren't happy, either.

"This is an ugly process, actually," Mikhail Sinelshikov of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency told the Houston Chronicle. "It's a very difficult, cumbersome, unpleasant process of dealing with the Ministry of Finance and actually forcefully getting the money."

Nevertheless, the project plods ahead. The problems will be addressed in orbit, NASA says.

"We're excited," said Jim Van Laak, a NASA mission manager. "Some of us have moments when we want to crawl under the bed and wonder why we ever thought this was the right thing to do, but we have confidence it is the right thing to do," he said.

A promise of research

Asked what he will do first upon arrival, U.S. astronaut Bill Shepherd said with a smile, "Turn on the lights."

As is the case in a lot of new homes, many things won't work or have not been hooked up, and a lot of time will be spent settling in.

There's a toilet, for example, but it isn't hooked up. The crew will set up oxygen supplies and systems for removing carbon dioxide and humidity. They will start a laptop computer network so they can send and receive e-mail.

They can take only sponge baths and there is no laundry, for now. They will wear clothes once and discard them for return to Earth, where they can be washed for reuse.

After setting up housekeeping, they face some heavy-duty construction work.

First come solar panels, to be delivered by space shuttle in December. Until the panels are in place, much of the station will lack electricity and will remain closed off.

In January comes the station's centerpiece, a U.S.-built laboratory called Destiny, being readied at Kennedy Space Center. Destiny is 28 feet long and 14 feet in diameter, and will be where much of the research is done.

"Until the lab is up there, we really don't have the facilities for science," said Kathryn Clark, a senior space station scientist.

Eventually, NASA likes to say, space research will push back the boundaries in biology, chemistry, astrophysics, medicine and engineering. That remains to be seen.

Mars looms in NASA's future, too -- six major missions are planned this decade -- and the agency plans to do a lot of Mars-related research on the station.

The space station's critics say the kind of research that can be done in space, while valid, is limited and does not begin to justify the station's eye-popping price.

Not so, said Mark Uhran, director of space utilization at NASA headquarters in Washington. Numerous scientists from public and private sectors have sought use of the station facilities for their research, he said. "Many more than we can accommodate."

NASA is subjecting each proposal to rigorous peer review, he said.

"Throughout the course of history, whenever humans explore new lands there have been benefits," he said.

"Microgravity is unique. It can't be produced on Earth, except for very short periods of time. Shuttle missions have only given us about 10 days of microgravity.

"We're about to cross over a threshold to hundreds of days, and a lot of good science will be the result."

- Information from the Dallas Morning News and Times wires was used in this report.

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