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Joint Space Station Slowed By Russia’s Inability To Keep Up

Problems with Russia’s space program have delayed its main contribution to the proposed international space station, endangering the entire project, some experts say.

The Russian module is a center-piece of the orbiting outpost, which involves 15 nations and is expected to cost at least $50 billion. It will be the size of a football field. The station is meant to symbolize, and help foster, a new era of East-West accord.

But the cash-poor Russians have now fallen nearly a year behind schedule in building a module that is vital to the station’s success.

So in an emergency move, NASA decided this month to build a stopgap module in the United States that will enable the plans to go forward.

The danger of the project’s unraveling “is great,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., chairman of the House Science Committee.

The plan calls for the orbiting outpost to be built in stages by 15 nations, replacing Cold War hostilities with a new kind of global teamwork. That work is to begin this year.

The first two modules, financed by the United States, are to be sent aloft in November and December. In the original plan, a module financed by Russia was to have been flown in April 1998. The Russian module is meant to provide life support as well as stability and propulsion.

Incensed at the delay, Sensenbrenner said if Russia was still withholding the payments for its space program at the end of February, the station team should ask the Russians to leave as partners, letting them serve only as subcontractors.

“If Russia continues to fail to fulfill its obligations,” he said, “it will shake the political and financial underpinnings of the station.”

In a bold step, the first stopgap piece for NASA is to be made out of military spy gear, which would apparently be the first such diversion to a civilian program. That means equipment designed to help Americans spy on Russia will now aid the Russians.