The United States and Russia are preparing to launch the first piece of the most ambitious space project ever attempted: a multinational station that will take astronauts six years to assemble and will grow to nearly the size of two football fields.
The $40-billion project, intended to replace Russia’s antiquated Mir space station, is designed to serve as an orbiting platform for scientific experiments and as a home for astronauts from up to 16 nations at least until 2013.
The first module of the station is scheduled to be launched Friday on a Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The module, named Zarya--Russian for “dawn"--will be followed into space by more than 100 additional segments to be sent aloft in at least 45 launches, then connected by robotic arms and spacewalking astronauts.
Delays caused by Russia’s economic dire straits notwithstanding, the station eventually will become one of the brightest objects in the night sky, NASA officials say.
“On Friday, with the launch of Zarya, we will see the rising of a new star,” Gretchen McClain, NASA deputy associate administrator, said at a prelaunch news conference here at Mission Control. “Increasing with each launch, it will get brighter, expanding the knowledge, the spirit and the hope of mankind.”
Advocates of the station hail the project as a symbol of international cooperation, bringing together Cold War adversaries such as the United States and Russia as well as Japan, Canada, Brazil and the 11 members of the European Space Agency.
The participating nations will be allotted research time in the station’s six solar-powered, state-of-the-art laboratories in proportion to their contribution to the station’s construction.
The huge cost of the station, however, has drawn criticism from some members of the U.S. Congress who say the money could be better spent on projects to help people on Earth.
Officially, NASA estimates that the cost of building the station will total $40 billion, not including unexpected cost overruns or the expense of operating the station. Critics predict that the overall cost will reach $100 billion.
The United States, which is shouldering the biggest burden financially, has agreed to pay $24 billion of the total construction cost. U.S. space shuttles will be the main vehicles used to ferry the station’s crews and components into space.
The project has been a boon for U.S. aerospace and electronics firms such as Boeing Co., the prime contractor, Lockheed-Martin Corp., Teledyne Electronics, Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell Inc., Loral Space & Communications Ltd., Raychem Corp., Digital Equipment Corp. and Schlumberger Technologies.
The construction of the Zarya cargo module was paid for by the United States, managed by Boeing and carried out by Russian workers. The second segment to be launched, a U.S.-manufactured connecting node called Unity, will be delivered by the space shuttle Endeavour on Dec. 3 and attached to Zarya by a team of astronauts that includes one veteran Russian cosmonaut.
The last time the United States had a space station was in 1979, when Skylab was allowed to fall from orbit. U.S. scientists began planning for a new space station in 1984--two years before the Soviet Union launched the Mir station--but couldn’t get their proposal off the ground.
The project changed markedly in character after the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia agreed in 1993 to join what had become the international space station project.
With far more experience designing and operating space stations than any other country, Russia immediately became central to the project. Many aspects of the new station’s initial modules are modeled on Mir. Beginning in 1996, a succession of NASA astronauts served on Mir for months at a time, conducting experiments, learning about life in space and helping to cope with breakdowns on the aging station.
While NASA officials say that Russia’s experience has been invaluable in planning the new station, Russia also has caused the biggest delays in the project because of a shortage of funds to pay for its part.
In particular, the launch schedule has been set back a year because of Russia’s slowness in completing the crucial service module where astronauts will live. As a result, Zarya and Unity will orbit together untouched for nearly six months before the next element, a U.S.-made cargo module, is launched. The service module is not scheduled for launch until July.
To help Russia cope with its fiscal crisis, NASA recently agreed to pay $60 million to “buy” Russia’s research time on the station while it is being assembled. This was more than satisfactory to Russia because it had few plans to use the station for research during the assembly phase.
“We sold the time we wouldn’t have much use for anyway,” said Sergei Gromov, a spokesman for Energiya, one of the main Russian companies involved in building the station.
“If we don’t have the plug to put in the socket, why not sell the use of the socket to the partner who is willing to pay for it?”
The Mir space station was scheduled to end its working life and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere in mid-1999, bringing an end to what many Russians perceive as their supremacy in space.
In recent weeks, Russian officials have begun calling for a delay in Mir’s destruction, despite a variety of malfunctions and near-disasters that has hampered the station’s ability to function.
Some participants in the international station have expressed concerns about whether Russia will be financially able to maintain Mir while living up to its agreement on the new project. U.S. officials, however, say they have not pressured Russia to bring Mir down.
“If they can keep Mir going and meet their commitments on the International Space Station, it really shouldn’t matter to us,” said Frank Culbertson, the NASA official in charge of the station’s operations. “But they have a commitment to the International Space Station, and if they were to delay the service module and include Mir instead, that would be a problem for us.”
The new space station’s supporters say one of its greatest values is in creating the opportunity to conduct experiments in conditions of microgravity, or weightlessness. It will have four times the laboratory space of Mir and 60 times the electrical power.
Among the research projects planned for the station are experiments on protein crystals that could lead to treatment for cancer, diabetes or immune system disorders; studies on metals and fluids that could help develop new alloys; research on the nature of outer space; and observation of Earth to study long-term changes on the planet.
While the international partners have been able to work out most of their differences, one agreement still eludes them: what to call the new station.
No one has been able to come up with a name that is satisfactory to all the participants, so it remains known officially as the International Space Station.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Building a Space Station
The first component of the International Space Station is to be launched Friday. A Russian rocket will transport the Zarya control module into space, where it will orbit until the next piece--the U.S.-built Unity connecting module--arrives aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in two weeks. During the next six years, at least 45 launches will carry more than 100 more segments into space, where they’ll be assembled by robotic arms and spacewalking astronauts.
Completed Space Station
Wingspan: 356 feet
Length: 290 feet
Mass: 1,040,000 pounds
Crew size: Up to seven
* Orbit height: About 220 nautical miles above Earth (250 statute miles).
* Construction: Special aluminum alloys, some pieces weighing tens of thousands of pounds, some parts almost as thin as the walls of a soda can.
* On the ground: Mission control centers in Houston and new Moscow will provide assistance to the astronauts.
Zarya Control Module
* Components: Six nickel-cadmium batteries; 16 fuel tanks that can hold more than 6 tons of propellant; two large engines for reboosting the spacecraft and making changes in orbit.
* Function: Will provide propulsion, power and communication capability during the early stages of station assembly. Later, Zarya will be used as a passageway, docking port and fuel tank.
Solar arrays generate electricity for the module.
11 feet wide
35 feet long
Zarya control module
41.2 feet long
13.5 feet wide
The shuttle’s robotic arm will capture Zarya and join it to Unity on the third day of Endeavour’s flight.
Unity Node: Six ports will connect station components.
18 feet long
15 feet in diameter
* Components: Contains more than 50,000 mechanical items, 216 lines to carry fluids and gases and 121 internal and external electrical cables using six miles of wire.
* Function: Will serve as a connecting passageway to living and work areas of the station.
Who’s Building What
Remote manipulator system: Two remotely controlled robots will install large station parts.
European Lab: 2,700-cubic-foot work space.
Experiment: 4,500-cubic-foot environment for conducting experiments and performing research.
Solar panels: Convert the sun’s light into electricity.
Service module: Living and working space for three crew members.
Radiators: Expel space station’s excess heat.
Crew’s quarters: 3,812-cubic-foot living space.
Approximate scale of space shuttle to space station (121.4 ft.)