With an anxious eye on the deteriorating Russian space program, the countdown has begun for Sunday's launch of the shuttle Atlantis.
The mission to resupply the aging Russian Mir space station and swap US crew members is the fifth in a series of nine joint operations paving the way for building an international space station. The first two components of the new station are scheduled to be launched and assembled at the end of this year.
But Atlantis's launch pad will hardly have cooled before officials from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration head to Russia on a rendezvous mission of their own - to weigh the future of Russian participation in the space station program.
The cash-starved Russians already have fallen eight months behind schedule on a key section of the new station. Further Russian delays could undercut safety and hamper NASA's ability to bring in the station at the estimated $17.4 billion cost.
To prevent any further delays, NASA officials are prepared to build a temporary replacement for the Russian module. Their decision "will hinge on what comes out of the discussions this month," says Wilbur Trafton, NASA's associate administrator for space flight. But, he adds, the agency also has plans for a permanent replacement if the Russian effort collapses.
Evidence is mounting that Russia's program, if not collapsing, may be teetering on the brink. The effort appears to be running short of nearly everything, including:
*People. Some 80 percent of the space industry's engineers and other skilled workers have left, according to Yuri Poletayev, an official with Russia's commercial launch organization Glavkosmos.
*Money. Last month, the director of the Russian Space Agency, Yuri Koptev, told the country's parliament that unless it raised the 1997 budget from 3.3 trillion rubles to 5.1 trillion rubles ($920 million), the agency couldn't continue its work on the international space station and might even have to jettison its own manned space program. The budget crisis also has forced Russia to delay for at a year a decision on whether to take part in an unmanned Mars mission with the US in 2001.
*Rockets. Mr. Koptev told Russian lawmakers that the agency needed up to three years of "stable and adequate financing" to rebuild its supplies of launch vehicles. The program's financial woes forced officials to cancel 16 out of 27 scheduled launches last year. Indeed, even as Koptev was pleading for more money, Russia's military cancelled the launch of a new spy satellite, citing a need to conserve launchers and satellites.
The shortfalls also have forced the Russians to halve the number of resupply flights to Mir. Until last year, Mir received about a half dozen resupply missions annually bringing more than 12 tons of food, clothing, and equipment. Last year that number fell to three flights, with another three scheduled for this year. While that rate is sufficient to allow Russia to use the engines on the Progress resupply vehicles to keep Mir in its proper orbit, it isn't enough to keep the station provisioned.
Thus, Russia's space-funding crisis has boosted the US shuttle's role in resupplying Mir, NASA officials say. During the six days it will be linked to Mir, Atlantis will transfer more than 2-1/2 tons of supplies to Mir, including 1,400 pounds of water generated in the shuttle's fuel cells. The US orbiter will take on more than a ton of materials for the return trip. Two more shuttle-Mir missions are planned.
Moscow's money problem and its devastating effect on Russia's space program have raised issues of safety as well as of NASA's ability to control the station's cost. This week, for example, the US National Research Council issued a report noting that while, in general, efforts to shield the station from collisions with orbital debris are thorough, the Russian portion may be the station's Achilles heel. The council says the Russians have stopped building shields during the production phase to meet schedules, opting instead to add shielding once their models are in orbit.
"Tying ourselves to their program could be fatal to the space station," worries James Oberg, a noted authority on the Russian space program.
The segment causing concern is the command and control center, known as the service module. The live-in segment will become the station's nerve center and house the propulsion systems to keep the station on its proper orbit.
If this month's meetings reassure NASA officials that the Russians will finish the service module, even with further delays, the US could opt to build an interim stand-in that could be ready for launch later this year and would be good for about a year's worth of propulsion, NASA officials say. In 1999, a refuelable live-in propulsion module could be launched. It could serve as a temporary replacement for the Russian version or for a more-permanent US version.