Space station project is poised for liftoff

August 20, 2006|By ORLANDO SENTINEL

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- One of the most complex construction jobs in history is about to get tougher.

Derailed for three years by a shuttle disaster and still scrambling for money, the $100 billion International Space Station's assembly is poised to get back on track with the planned liftoff next Sunday of shuttle Atlantis.

The 4:29 p.m. launch from Kennedy Space Center is scheduled to begin a demanding 11-day construction mission that will add a pair of solar arrays to the orbital outpost. NASA is billing the flight as one of the most difficult in the program's history.

The mission will also kick off a final push of at least 15 shuttle flights and more than 80 space walks needed to complete the station during the next four years.

There is little margin for error. The construction tasks ahead grow increasingly complicated and build on previous missions. A serious problem or misstep could have a huge ripple effect throughout the project.

"The assembly of ISS [the station] has been described as one of the most difficult tasks ever attempted by humans," said Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager. "The creation of a spacecraft in space has never been done before, and that's what we're doing."

Besides the technical challenges, there are potential pitfalls in the political realm. The station must compete for funding with other NASA priorities, including the agency's effort to return astronauts to the moon.

Long-standing questions remain about the benefits and goals of station research. NASA must also maintain cooperation among 15 other international partners that have occasionally grown frustrated with the lack of progress.

Things appear to have improved during the past 12 months after more than three years of rocky relations.

Much of the discontent involved the insistence of some U.S. managers as recently as early 2005 that there would be 28 more shuttle flights to the station before the fleet's retirement in 2010.

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