Saving Mir: At what cost to new space station?

Russians decree that they will keep aging orbital outpost raisesquestions in US abouttheir ability to fund international project.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Russia agreed to abandon the Mir space station last June to focus its meager space budget on the International Space Station (ISS), American officials breathed a sigh of relief. The cash-strapped country, they argued, didn't have the money to support both projects.

Now, they are holding their breath again following Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's decree Friday to keep Mir aloft three more years.

Construction of the ISS, begun in December, is already a year behind schedule because of Russian delays in delivering key components. The new decree could mean further delays and higher costs for the $60 billion project.

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For their part, officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) say they are withholding judgment until early this week, when they hope to see the full text of the decree. But some in the space community believe that, no matter what the decree says, Russia can't afford two major space projects at once.

According to reports from Russia, the decree noted that within three months, Russian and foreign contractors and investors will have developed a program to keep Mir on orbit without touching money allocated to the ISS. "We were told that the decree required that Mir's extension be financed with nongovernment funds, that there be enough money to cover deorbiting Mir, and that Mir's extension must have no impact on ISS," says Dwayne Brown, a NASA spokesman in Washington.

Even with outside funding, however, Mir would continue to compete with the ISS for Russian resources, says James Oberg, a Houston-based aerospace engineer and an authority on the Russian space program. Neither the rocketmakers nor their suppliers have the capacity to build vehicles needed to support both programs, he says. Thus, even if private funding could be found, retaining Mir could further delay ISS, he adds.

For Russia, losing Mir would erase "the last symbol of a world-class space program," he says. Yet with last fall's launch and mating of the first two ISS modules and the need to keep the program moving, "the clock is ticking. NASA jumped from the plane and now is negotiating with the parachute salesman."

Nor is Russia's move endearing it to some key members of Congress. "I'm very concerned," says Rep. Dave Weldon (R) of Florida, vice chairman of the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.

"We've had problems already because of Russian shortfalls." Russia's delays, he notes, have added $1 billion to $2 billion to the lifetime costs of ISS.

YET Representative Weldon, who says he intends to ask for hearings to sort through the issues raised by Russia's decree, adds that the move doesn't surprise him because Mir has become a source of cash for Russia's space program. NASA paid the Russians to host several US astronauts aboard Mir during the first phase of the ISS program. The European Space Agency and a smattering of private companies also have paid to orbit astronauts and experiments.

If Russia's move is raising eyebrows in Washington, it is drawing kudos from some spaceflight advocates, who argue that while Mir may be old, it is still a valuable asset that should be exploited.

"The fallacy in trashing Mir is that we are using aerospace engineering standards when we should be dealing with it as real estate," argues Rick Tumlinson, who heads the Space Frontier Foundation, which advocates rapid commercial development of space. Mir should be refurbished and kept on orbit, rather than sending it plummeting toward Earth to burn up in the atmosphere.

Moreover, he argues, new technologies could hold down operating costs. The nonprofit Foundation for International Non-Government Development of Space and private partners are exploring several approaches to cutting costs. One idea involves space tethers - cables that dangle from orbiting spacecraft and use electricity and Earth's magnetic field to alter a spacecraft's altitude. The technology already has undergone a successful test on a previous space shuttle mission, and another experiment is being developed under NASA's Future X program, aimed at developing advanced space propulsion systems.

By one estimate, for a fraction of the cost of one Russian resupply launch, a space tether could be launched and installed in Mir, reducing the need for additional resupply missions.

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