A little over three years ago, American astronaut James Wetherbee made a prediction about space flight that should soon come true. His space shuttle Discovery had finished the first-ever rendezvous of a United States craft with Russia's Mir space station. As he departed, he told Mir Cmdr. Alexander Viktorenko that soon "we will shake your hand and together we will lead our world into the next millennium."
Now Russia and the US have joined with 14 other nations to build an international space station. They signed an agreement to do so in Washington last January.
The future of human space flight will be a global venture. No one will return to the moon or go to Mars except on international missions. The space station program is the test bed where this new internationalism will be developed. Commander Viktorenko's reply to Wetherbee in February 1995 could be its motto: "We are all one."
After working together for three years on Mir, the two space-faring nations are ready to lead the way in building an orbital facility where as many as seven astronauts can work together. That is, they're ready to lead if they can get their own delays and funding problems resolved.
The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) calls this ambitious effort "the most complex, international science and engineering program ever attempted."
Given that reality, an independent assessment released last month by a NASA Advisory Council task force calls current NASA estimates of $21 billion for the US contribution and five to six years to build this orbital dream house "optimistic." The report considers $24.7 billion more realistic.
A few facts sketch the immensity of that ambition. It will take an estimated 93 flights of various types of rockets and spacecraft to assemble and check out the 500-ton football-field-size complex. The spacecraft will include American shuttles, Russian Soyuz ships, and Russian Progress robot freighters and their boosters. Russian Proton rockets and European Ariane boosters will also send up station components.
Hardware from small lab equipment to entire laboratories and living quarters will come from industries on four continents - Asia, Europe, and North and South America. Control centers in Canada, Japan, Europe, Russia, and the US will manage the station and its equipment.
The partners must work to common standards and common goals in spite of their cultural and economic diversity. Besides the US and Russia, they include Brazil, Canada, Japan, and 11 members of the European Space Agency. NASA administrator Daniel Goldin has said, "We knew from the outset that building an international space station was going to be tremendously challenging." The Nasa Advisory Council wryly observed that the "complexity and scope of this effort is beyond the current experience base of NASA and the international partners."
What has evolved is a system that emphasizes the strengths of individual partners. Hardware each nation contributes is built at home. Funds contributed to the program also are largely spent at home. When help from another partner is needed, a barter system keeps funding local. For example, Europe is supplying two so-called nodes that NASA wants for docking spacecraft and joining station elements. In exchange NASA will launch Europe's Columbus laboratory module.
The main exception has been US support for Russia by paying for astronaut visits to Mir and buying other services and equipment. NASA, for example, has bought the first space-station element from Russia. Called the functional cargo block, it will provide energy, storage, and docking points.
The question now is when will that initial unit get off the launching pad at Russia's Baikonur space port in Kazakstan. As soon as it orbits, NASA is ready to send up the shuttle to attach a unit with docking ports. Then Russia is to launch a service module that will be home away from home for the first crews who will help assemble the station. Slippages in Russian schedules have repeatedly delayed the show. Originally due to open last year, Russian managers now suggest waiting until October to launch the cargo block.
NASA still plans on having the service module in place by early 1999. But it is buying insurance. The US Navy will supply a unit that can keep the cargo block properly oriented and at the right altitude should the service module, which performs this task, fall through. In either case, a US living and laboratory unit is due to reach the growing station next year.
Then there's the question of money. The Russian Space Agency has lived from hand-to-mouth throughout this decade. Its 1998 budget is the equivalent of $300 million. But only $100 million is real money. The rest is a government guarantee for loans up to $200 million, if the space agency can negotiate them with lenders.
In spite of the clouds of uncertainty enshrouding the space station program, there is little pressure to abandon it.
NASA has grand visions for the space station's research capability. Its plan calls for pursuing questions related to how the universe, stars, solar systems, and life itself form - questions best asked in a space environment. That means taking advantage of weightlessness. It also means collecting samples of both earthly and cosmic dust drifting by the station. Researchers will study properties of materials, of fluids, of fire and many other phenomena when gravity is not influencing them.
A meeting of the station partners in early June is expected to firm up launch schedules.