Finally, the space station First module up: Completion still five years away, but successful Russian launch bolsters confidence.

November 26, 1998

EVER PLAYED with Lego bricks? How about Tinker Toys? Then you can visualize how astronauts will build the international space station. All the pieces have to fit.

Fifteen years after it was first proposed by then-President Ronald Reagan, the space station's construction began Friday with Russia's launch of its first component, dubbed Zarya or "Dawn."

Assembly in space is expected to take about five years. But U.S. space officials fear that a dismal economy may force Russia to abandon its important early role in the mission. Millions of U.S. dollars have helped the country continue work. No one knows how long Russia can afford to continue the partnership, which includes 11 European countries, Japan, Canada and Brazil.

The first component, a fuel storage and propulsion unit, will be joined in December by a node called Unity, which the United States will launch. These two pieces are to be connected to a Russian-built service module that is scheduled for launch in July. A three-person crew plans to to work in the service module in January 2000. Forty launches and hundreds of parts later, the space station will be large enough for seven astronauts.

The space station's mission is to conduct a number of long-term experiments, but scientists don't agree on the potential value. Some say robots could perform the same tasks at a much lower cost. Others say the station's weightless environment will provide invaluable research benefits. To appreciate the space station, you have to view it in the same context as any scientific research. Each new step in probing space has provided knowledge that advanced man's ability to overcome challenges here on Earth. Yet scientists sometimes have not anticipated the benefits.

Putting the space station together is the next step.

It is important only if other steps follow.

Pub Date: 11/26/98

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