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.
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."
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.
"There's a deep-seated hope that this space project will eventually deliver unexpected benefits that by their nature cannot be explicitly predicted," says James Oberg, a 22-year NASA veteran who is now a private consultant and author.
Planning for the space station began nearly 15 years ago during the Reagan administration. Russia, which has built a series of smaller space stations and accumulated considerable experience in long-duration space flight, joined the project in 1993. The 11-nation European Space Agency, Japan, Canada, and Brazil will take part as well.
On Dec. 3, astronauts aboard the US space shuttle Endeavour will carry up a passageway section and connect it to the first module. The next major step will be the Russian-made service module, the first living quarters. That element of the project is already at least four months behind schedule. Later rocket and shuttle trips will ferry other major components to complete the space station.
Reminder: Russia is not the enemy
Despite serious questions about how well the Russian Space Agency will perform, some observers already see post-cold-war diplomatic benefits for the US and the other project partners.
"It serves as a constant reminder that Russia is not the enemy, and that's a good thing," says John Pike, director of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists. In addition, he says, it keeps Russian rocket scientists at home when they might be tempted to go to work in countries like Iraq or North Korea where missile proliferation is a concern.
The completed station will be longer than a football field, weigh about 1 million pounds, and host up to seven people as it orbits 250 miles above Earth. In a near-zero gravity environment, scientists will conduct medical research, develop manufacturing processes, and use their large perch to look out into space and down at Earth.
Always looking to put a more cosmic spin on its mission, NASA also says the space station will be a "city in space ... and providing inspiration for future generations." As long as the rockets and shuttles make their launch schedules.
A HOME IN SPACE
The Russians are launching the first piece of the International Space Station, a 42,600-pound component called Zarya (r.), today. As for the finished space station, to be completed in 2004:
* At 460 tons, it will weigh more than three blue whales.
* At 361 feet from end to end, it is one-fourth as tall as the Sears Tower in Chicago.
r Its 46,000 cubic feet of living and working space is rougly equal to the interior volume of a Boeing 747 jet.
* It will house seven astronauts.
* Sixteen countries are involved in the its construction: Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
* The components of the station will be carried into space on 43 flights by the US Space Shuttle and Russian rockets.
* The electric power system is connected with eight miles of wire.