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'Sunrise' for home base in space

Today, Russia sends up the cornerstone piece in the long building of the space station.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 1998


Today's scheduled launch of a Russian rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan marks one small step in what could be a giant leap for space exploration ... if it successfully navigates the meteor shower of diplomacy, politics, and economics it began encountering even before it left the pad.

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The Proton rocket is carrying a 43,000-pound control module called Zarya (Sunrise), the first piece in a 16-nation, six-year effort to construct a space station that enthusiasts say could propel mankind to Mars and beyond.

NASA administrator Daniel Goldin calls it an "extraordinary venture." Tonight, he says, "we will look up to the night sky and celebrate a new star on the horizon."

Skeptics are more circumspect.

Aside from the enormous and potentially dangerous effort the International Space Station (ISS) entails - at least 43 rocket and space shuttle launches and 144 spacewalks totaling more than twice the time astronauts have floated outside their crafts so far - there's the question of reliability in the Rus-sian space program.

With that nation's economy in a tailspin, NASA expects to have to spend $660 million over the next several years to cover some of Russia's space costs.

That may be just a fraction of what is likely to be a $40 billion tab for construction. But congressional budget hawks say that's not chicken feed, especially since the top end may be $96 billion including lifetime operating costs, according to the General Accounting Office.

"I'm beginning to think [the Clinton administration] doesn't care whether the space station gets built, so long as the Russians are happy," grumbles Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Science Committee. Mr. Sensenbrenner threatens to cut off funding to the Russian space agency.

Others are concerned as well.

Inadequate funding through the 1990s has led to "deeply embedded industrial problems" in Russia's space program, says Judyth Twigg, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and longtime student of the Russian aerospace program. These include a decaying infrastructure and "brain drain" of space scientists to private industry.

"All the money in the world is not going to allow Russia to meet the promises they're making," warns Dr. Twigg.

Some observers have questioned whether the United States should be putting so much effort into ISS when greater gains might be made by building a permanent outpost on Earth's moon or pushing more rapidly toward Mars.

"Is the shuttle fleet going to wear out because of the space station?" asks Charles Kauffman, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan. Still, most experts agree with Dr. Kauffman when he says, "If you think long-term, it probably is something worth doing."

Unpredictable benefits

Like most major explorations in human history - from Europeans looking for the "New World" to John Glenn's three-orbit flight in 1962 - the potential benefits of the venture may be unknowable at this point.