Life aboard the Russian space station Mir lately is going about as well as the broader U.S.-Russian partnership in space. There’s been a backed-up toilet, fouled-up oxygen generators and even a fire that broke out and briefly engulfed the Russian, German and American crew in thick smoke.
The discomforts aloft echo troubles on the ground that have disrupted the U.S.-led effort to get a new international space station off the ground on schedule.
Work on a critical component of the planned $60 billion facility - one required to keep it from falling out of orbit - has been stalled by the cash-starved Russian government’s failure to pay aerospace contractors. Russian space officials have unilaterally declared that there will be a delay of at least seven months in the start of the construction project, which involves 15 countries, dozens of companies and thousands of workers.
The first piece of the space station is still officially scheduled for launch in eight months aboard a Russian Proton rocket. But NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, has reluctantly concluded that a delay until mid-1998 is probably the prudent course.
He told a budget panel on Capitol Hill last week: “I can’t begin to tell you my level of frustration. I’m not angry at the Russians. I’m sympathetic.”
While technically manageable, analysts say, the delay is politically onerous for NASA because it exposes the controversial space station program to renewed attacks by persistent critics in Congress and the scientific community.
Critics argue that the facility amounts to “an orbiting pork barrel” whose practical returns will never justify its costs.
But NASA cannot build the station as planned without Russia, which plays a central role in the construction job and provides 44 of the 73 rocket flights required to carry hardware, people and supplies to orbit.