Counting on the Russians Space station: Threatened by unwillingness to admit poverty of once-mighty program.

February 05, 1997

IT IS DIFFICULT to have confidence in the Russian government's promise to budget the money needed to fulfill its role in building an international space station. Russia's prior verbal support for the project has not translated into the funds necessary to prevent dangerous delays. It now appears the Russians are a year behind in building a service module scheduled for launch in April 1998. They now contend it will be ready by November 1998, but that's hard to believe.

The country is cash-starved and its leadership is tenuous. President Boris N. Yeltsin's health remains a concern more than two months after his quintuple heart bypass surgery. Former national security chief Alexander I. Lebed wants Mr. Yeltsin to resign. The proposed budget being considered by the Russian parliament includes money for the space station, but it would be a gamble to conclude those funds will actually be seen. Indeed, NASA officials are already looking at alternatives in case the Russians can't fulfill their mission.

It is important that Vice President Al Gore correctly assess what the Russians can and cannot do when he meets today with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

The Russians need to provide an explanation for the project delays so far and reasons to believe those problems won't be repeated. It may be difficult for the Russians to admit the sad state of affairs within a space program that American scientists once envied, but they must so everyone involved can decide how the space station project should proceed.

Fifteen countries are participating in the international space station endeavor. That has led many observers to conclude the project's greatest value may be the amount of post-Cold War cooperation it has engendered. The price tag for that has been high.

So far, the U.S. has sunk more than $11 billion into designing the space station; it now accounts for $2 billion of NASA's annual budget. The American people expect more than friendship for that much money. They want scientific studies that only a space station can provide -- either with Russian participation, or without it.

Pub Date: 2/05/97

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