Reflecting a deepening crisis in the International Space Station program, NASA is making a highly unusual $20-million emergency loan to cash-starved Russian aerospace concerns that are eight months behind schedule in building a key component, NASA chief Daniel S. Goldin disclosed Thursday.
NASA’s loan comes amid increasing concern that Russia’s problems could jeopardize the entire international project. If the Russian hardware, due to be launched late next year, is not in place according to schedule, the entire project will be at risk of crashing into the atmosphere and burning up.
The space station troubles headed the list of issues in talks Thursday between Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, who was in Washington on a previously scheduled visit.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials are rushing to complete an evaluation of two alternatives if the Russian effort collapses, which would raise serious cost and schedule issues, Goldin said. A decision on those alternatives is expected in the next month.
Russian officials have repeatedly assured NASA that they have released funding necessary to complete the “service module,” a fundamental component that provides both propulsion and navigation for the entire station.
As recently as a month ago, NASA space station chief Randy Brinkley declared that the problem was solved because Russian officials told him that they had released the funding.
But Goldin acknowledged Thursday that NASA representatives have seen little sign of activity at the Russian Krunichev aerospace plant, where the module is being built.
“The time for patience is over,” Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Science Committee, said in an interview Thursday. “The money has not been there.”
Sensenbrenner said the Russian delays threaten to ripple across the program, raising the prospect of a schedule slip that would affect the United States, Japan, Canada and Europe and trigger billions of dollars of cost overruns.
The schedule for the service module is critical because once the space station construction sequence begins, NASA has 14 months to get the service module in place or risk the partially built station burning up in the atmosphere.
Sensenbrenner, along with three other key congressional leaders in space issues, wrote a letter to Gore this week urging him to secure a “definitive agreement” from Chernomyrdin when the two men met.
But John Pike, a space expert at the Federation of American Scientists, predicted that the issue is unlikely to be resolved soon, and may ultimately kill the project.
Pike asserted that the Russians are withholding funding in response to Clinton administration support for expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into Eastern Europe, a prospect that is deeply resented by Russians.
“They are jerking us around because of NATO expansion,” Pike said. “However unhappy we make them over NATO expansion, they plan to make us equally unhappy over the space station.”
Before leaving Moscow, Chernomyrdin underscored Russia’s objections to NATO expansion, saying in a newspaper interview that if the alliance takes in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic--as now seems almost certain--Russia will have to revive its mothballed arms industry and rebuild its military might.
Gore and Chernomyrdin, however, opened their meeting Thursday by assuring each other that the Cold War enemies are now unshakable partners.
“We share a fundamental belief in the ideals of liberty,” Gore said during a brief public exchange before two days of closed-door talks.