NASA Wants to Bail Out Russian Space Agency
By Kathy Sawyer
NASA will ask Congress and the White House for approval to buy up to an additional $660 million worth of goods and services from the Russian Space Agency over the next four years, scrambling to salvage plans to build an international space station with the Russians.
The short-term goal is to prevent further costly delays in the controversial U.S.-led project, scheduled to start construction in orbit in November, by ensuring that Russian space workers get paid. Over the long term, despite deepening political and economic turmoil in Russia, officials said, key administration and congressional officials agree that it would be costlier to abandon the Russians than to provide the bailout.
NASA has notified Congress and the White House budget office that it wants to buy $60 million worth of future Russian space vehicles, other equipment and expertise from existing NASA funds by the end of this month, and another $40 million worth by the end of the year, Joseph Rothenberg, chief of NASA's office of space flight, confirmed yesterday. The money is intended to provide an emergency infusion of funds to keep Russian space vehicles and other hardware vital to the space station moving off assembly lines.
Russian Space Agency chief Yuri Koptyev recently told U.S. officials "he's out of money," Rothenberg said. With an influx of dollars, however, Koptyev has indicated that the service module -- a key Russian component already 98 percent completed -- could be ready by next July -- a 2 1/2-month slip in its scheduled completion date.
The $40 million would be the first installment of up to $150 million a year that NASA will also ask to pay out over the next four years of space station construction. That would cover about half the anticipated annual Russian cost for the project, Rothenberg said. "We can't be sure they'll come up with the other half though," he said. "If they don't, we need to be prepared" to go forward.
In 1993, the Clinton administration moved to bring America's former Cold War adversary into the huge international project as a major partner along with 14 other nations that have invested several billion dollars. The orbital outpost is designed to lay the groundwork for future human exploration of space, as well as to conduct basic scientific research on weightlessness.
It will weigh about a million pounds and occupy five times the volume of the aging Russian space station Mir. While much of the initial hardware has been built, work has virtually halted in Russia on unmanned Progress transport vehicles, Soyuz escape capsules and other equipment needed in coming years.
Congressional skeptics of the Russian relationship for years have been urging NASA to develop a better backup plan in case the Russians failed to deliver. But NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin has long acknowledged that the project would be difficult. "It's not gonna be pretty, but we're going to pull it off," he said in an interview last week.
NASA has belatedly begun to develop backup measures, including modifications to the shuttle that would allow it to keep the space station in the proper orbit.
"In effect, we're buying $150 million per year worth of insurance" from the Russians, in addition to NASA's internal backup measures, Rothenberg said. "A year ago, we wouldn't have predicted things would be this bad."
The added costs of the Russian bailout, the shuttle modifications and other remedial measures are estimated at about $1.2 billion, he said, but the impact of a Russian default on the service module (with the resulting delays) would be even worse -- about $2 billion. This is on top of a projected overall U.S. cost that ranges as high as $60 billion for some 16 years of space station development and construction.
NASA has paid Russia more than $400 million for goods and services, including the recently concluded series of American visits to the Russian space station Mir.
The Clinton administration's rationale for inviting the Russians to become partners in the complex international project was not only to procure valuable expertise and hardware, but also to promote nuclear nonproliferation: that is, to keep paychecks flowing to Russian rocket scientists and discourage them from selling their skills to threatening states. Similarly, the Energy Department is expected to sign a new agreement today for $20 million in U.S. aid to ease the transition of displaced Russian nuclear scientists into civilian occupations as the Russian government cuts its nuclear weapons work force by 45,000.
The U.S.-Russian negotiations are complex and sensitive, according to U.S. officials. Instead of welcoming the U.S. offer, the Russians are holding out for more money than the U.S. is willing to pay for certain equipment.
The Russians take great pride in their space program as a source of national prestige, and Rothenberg said there is some concern that they might have trouble maintaining this support if their partnership role is seen to be greatly diminished.
Russian space officials are "working their government, trying to see who is best to talk to" about getting money flowing for space workers, according to Michael Baker, NASA's chief official in Moscow.
Goldin said, "We collectively don't really understand the implications of the [Prime Minister Yevgeny] Primakov government yet" for space issues. "But we continue to work well with the Russian Space Agency. . . . Communications at the senior levels are still fine."
The key determining factor in whether the first two launches can proceed on time will be whether NASA officials are convinced the Russians can deliver a crucial element of the space station -- the service module -- no later than September 1999, Goldin said. Third in line for launch, the service module would provide power to reboost the fledgling orbital facility and keep it from falling out of orbit. It would also serve as crew living quarters.
The service module, a major Russian contribution under the partnership agreement, has suffered delays and problems attributed primarily to the Russian government's failure to keep paychecks flowing to contractors and subcontractors.
The U.S. space agency has been abuzz lately with rumors of delays, but Goldin said that, as of last week, both Russian and U.S. space officials favored sticking to the schedule for the first two launches. The first, a Russian-built, U.S.-funded control module called Zarya (Sunrise) is scheduled to be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Nov. 20 atop a Proton rocket. The second, a U.S. connector module called Unity, would lift off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 3 aboard the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour, whose crew would conduct a series of space walks to hook the two orbiting elements together.
U.S. and Russian agency heads are to meet, possibly in Washington, in late October to make a final scheduling decision, Goldin said, following a round of meetings in Moscow from Sept. 28 to Oct. 2, including a general design review by U.S. and Russian managers, and then a meeting of all the partner nations.