When a Russian-built bunkhouse arrives at the International Space Station this evening, every lurch and pirouette will be followed not only by mission control but also by a world of technocrats and taxpayers.
If the Russians successfully dock the Zvezda service module with the orbiting station, it will mark a milestone for the progress of the multibillion-dollar, 16-nation project. Once locked in place, Zvezda will become home to a full-time crew, scheduled to arrive later this year.
Yet even to some station supporters, the module has also come to symbolize what can go wrong when cosmic construction becomes an international venture.
As a result of Russian delays in delivering parts and services, the $96 billion station is 2-1/2 years behind schedule, and costs are burgeoning. Moreover, the Russians have shipped defective components, resulting in concerns about crew safety and an additional shuttle mission to make repairs.
The travails have led some in Congress - and others beyond Capitol Hill - to question whether the orbiting lab will be a source of intercontinental pride or a financial black hole, siphoning billions in government money. To be sure, space exploration has historically been a costly, time-consuming prospect, but for those who oversee NASA, the frustration is mounting.
"We've go to get this job done and move on to other projects," insists Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California, chairman of the House space and aeronautics subcommittee. "This has gone on too long and consumed too much money."
With tens of billions of dollars being poured into the space station, he warns, "if it's not a success, it will undercut public support for the space program."
While participation by the cash-strapped Russians has contributed to the space station's rising costs, the project is no stranger to ballooning price tags.
When President Reagan directed NASA to begin work on what was then called space station Freedom in 1984, estimates of the project's cost ranged from $6 billion to $8 billion. Over the next seven years, NASA would spend $11.4 billion on the program without launching a single piece of metal. The money was spent on several redesigns.
By 1993, NASA estimated the project's cost at $90 billion - $30 billion for construction and $60 billion to operate the orbiting laboratory for 30 years. That year, President Clinton directed NASA to redesign the station once again and cut its 30-year operating life to 10 years. He signed off on a $19.4 billion design he claimed would save billions by including components bought from Russia. Then, in September 1993, he announced that the US and Russia would merge their programs, once again prompting a redesign.
Mr. Clinton's approach resulted in what Mr. Rohrabacher and others see as a key mistake: It put a country with expertise and desire - but with a crumbling economy and withering space budget - into the position of having to supply crucial elements.
Indeed, while each international partner in the project is supposed to pay for its own components, Russia is the only country to receive direct cash payments - nearly $500 million in exchange for its participation.
In addition, uncertainty about Russia's ability to deliver its promised components has forced NASA to build costly substitutes as insurance against further delays. And concerns are mounting that some Russian contractors are overcharging NASA for elements they are supposed to supply.
Overall, Russian participation has cost the US an extra $3 billion, Rohrabacher says. Other estimates put the number at $5 billion.
Either way, he notes that the Clinton administration has turned the space-station program into a foreign-policy tool.
But that's not a bad idea, says Charles Vick, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
"Politics has been a given in this program for the last 10 years," he says. "We need to remember why we want to cooperate with the Russians: They bring 25-plus years of experience with space-station technology that we don't otherwise have, and it's rocket technology they're not sending to third-world countries."
Still, the partnership raises thorny - and apparently perpetual questions.
The key issue involves the financial health of the Russian space program. After the launch of Zvezda July 12, Yuri Semenov, the chief designer, asked NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin for more than moral support. "Our government cannot really be leaned on in terms of funding," Mr. Semenov said.
His statement raises eyebrows on this side of the Atlantic, particularly after Russia recently announced that it would keep its own station, Mir, operating indefinitely, through a private company called MIRCorp. The Russians were to have abandoned the station and let it burn up in the atmosphere. NASA officials have worried about the squeeze Mir would put on Russia's ability to meet its commitments to the ISS.
The announcement to keep Mir running has also raised other financial questions. Energia, a company invested heavily in Mir, said it would sell two capsules to NASA for the ISS at a price of $65 million apiece. But it has offered MIRCorp. one capsule - and two supply vehicles - for $20 million.
Yet for all the grumbling about rising costs, there is little sentiment in Congress to cut the project. The lone voice for ending the program comes from Rep. Tim Roemer (D) of Indiana. Every year for the past half-dozen years, he has introduced legislation to kill to program. It lost by one vote the first year, and has been defeated by increasingly larger margins with each passing year.
"We think $100 billion is extremely high for what the space station promises to return," says a spokesman for Mr. Roemer's office. Yet he acknowledges that the quest is a bit quixotic, given increasing congressional support for the station. "We're fighting the battle now to keep costs down."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society