Station Launch Hides Lingering Woes

19 November 1998 7:30 pm

MOSCOW--Russian rockets are scheduled to launch the first piece of the international space station from Kazakhstan tomorrow. But plans for Russian scientific experiments have been grounded by the country's recent decision to sell NASA thousands of hours of station time earmarked for research by Russian cosmonauts for $60 million needed to complete a key station component (Science, 9 October, p. 206). "It was very sad for us, and for Russian science," says Valery Bogomolov, deputy director of the Institute for Biomedical Problems, which is scrambling to plan experiments on the ground that were meant to be done in space.

As the rest of the space community readies its payloads for the $50 billion international space station, Bogomolov and his Russian colleagues must resign themselves to a limited role until at least 2003, when they will vie for a share of research time aboard the completed station. And the lost opportunity is only one of several continuing crises for Russian space science. The launch of the Russian-backed Spectrum-X-Gamma spacecraft, a $500 million international effort to study x-rays, is running almost a decade behind schedule. Russia is propping up "a Potemkin space program," asserts Houston-based space consultant James Oberg. "It's a hollow shell."

In an effort to keep some life in that shell, the Russian Space Agency (RKA) last week backed off plans to bring the 12-year-old Mir space station down to Earth next summer. Realizing that Mir is one of the few symbols of national pride in a disintegrating economy, Russian government officials and legislators are now hammering out a proposal for the 1999 budget, due out next month, that would seek to fund both Mir and international space station operations. "What if there is a problem with the international space station?" asks Bogomolov. "We're very interested in keeping [Mir] as an option for research."

But observers don't see how Russia can afford the $100 million to $200 million needed next year to operate and supply Mir along with the roughly $130 million that Russia is supposed to contribute to the international space station. NASA officials are hoping to persuade the cash-strapped RKA not to divert funds to Mir. "We want them to devote their resources only to the international space station," says NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown.

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