APRIL HAS been a tough month for Russian space scientists. They celebrated the 36th anniversary of the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin) while acknowledging they work in a shadow of the program that accomplished that feat. Once proud of the envy their dominance in space exploration caused, Russians now cross their fingers the U.S. Congress won't cut their life line.
It appears that won't happen. The House Science Committee has voted to continue funding of the space station, a joint venture whose construction has been delayed nearly a year because of the Russians. They are building a service module that will include sleeping compartments and laboratory space. But Russian contractors, who are not being paid on time, are way behind in their work. Their new deadline is December 1998.
It was appropriate that the Science Committee listed on the spending authorization bill for NASA some specific stipulations concerning the Russians. It wants the U.S. space administration to report monthly on the Russian workers' progress, prepare a detailed contingency plan in case the Russians fail to build the service module on time and have permanent replacement equipment available for everything the Russians will put in the space station.
NASA officials have played up the expertise Russian scientists bring to this project, having built the Mir space station. And the Clinton administration is unwilling to hurt the Yeltsin government by labeling it incapable of participating in this multi-national project that also includes Japan, Europe and Canada.
But the Senate may place even tougher stipulations concerning the space station on the NASA budget. The space agency should receive about $13.7 billion each of the next two fiscal years, with about $2.1 billion committed annually to the space station. Those are tight budgets for NASA. It cannot afford to be so committed to the Russians that it allows those problems to jeopardize what the U.S. wants to accomplish in space.
Pub Date: 4/27/97