Slim Margin in Space

RUSSIAN cosmonaut Valery Polyakov left the Russian space station Mir and entered the record books yesterday, ending a 438-day stay on orbit. Among those in Mir who wished him bon voyage was astronaut Norman Thagard, the first American to orbit aboard the station.

Spaceflight is still anything but routine, however. It will become even less so when construction begins on the United States-led international space station in late 1997. Ever tighter budgets for the station and the programs that support it could jeopardize the project.

There is little margin for error. Between November 1997 and June 2002, roughly 60 missions must be flown -- flawlessly. The vast majority will be flown by the shuttle and the Russians. The European Space Agency may withdraw its launch support. Russia's expertise in station construction and operation is crucial. Its contribution to the international station forms the core around which the rest of it will be built. But Russia's space budgets are small and tenuous, and its space infrastructure decaying rapidly.

In the US, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin must cut his budget by $1 billion through the year 2000. The space station project is exempt from reviews of the agency's operations, but shuttle operations are not.

NASA officials say that no money or hardware exists to replace space-station payloads lost in a launch accident. The unspoken implication is even more dire if a shuttle is lost. Experts have warned that while the orbiter system has improved its safety record, it is moving uncomfortably close to the limits that engineering estimates put on launch-failure rates.

This makes all the more disturbing reports that because the shuttle is seen as a mature system, some of the safety procedures established after the Challenger accident in 1986 are no longer needed. The Europeans, currently reviewing their contributions to the space-station project, were understandably peeved when the Russians recently dropped and destroyed a European experiment that had flown on a Russian mission. One can only imagine what would happen to European support if a major station component were lost.

If inadequate funding is allowed to jeopardize space station support missions, then it might be time for the partners to work together to find a graceful way out.

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