WASHINGTON, D.C.--U.S. scientists planning research projects aboard the international space station have long fretted that their experiments would get short shrift from astronauts too busy putting the station together to spend much time conducting science. But a deal negotiated with Russia last week could provide them all the experiment time they want.
On 2 October, NASA announced that it will pay Russia's bankrupt space agency $60 million for thousands of hours of cosmonaut time over the next 5 years as well as the rights to store experiments aboard a Russian-built module. The agreement is intended to prevent the $50 billion space station project from falling even further behind schedule (Science, 1 May, p. 666 ). NASA and Russian officials say the deal will allow Russia to finish work on the crucial service module, a major piece of the station to be launched next year.
Many space scientists are enthusiastic because the agreement will shift astronaut time into running the extensive array of experiments they want to deploy on the station while it is being assembled. According to agency officials, station astronauts will have roughly 30,000 work hours to divide among various tasks during the assembly process, including construction, operations, and maintenance. About 10,000 hours had been reserved for research, split evenly between the United States and Russia. "To potentially double our access [to labor] for that amount of money is a very good buy," says aerospace engineer Gerard Faeth of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, a NASA adviser.
But some members of Congress are attacking the plan, which is expected to be presented formally to a House Science Committee hearing tomorrow. "It looks like we are going to pay for work that the Russian astronauts were going to do anyway, simply to keep the project moving," says one congressional aide. And some observers wonder if space scientists will be able to take full advantage of the windfall when--and if--it arrives. The storage space that NASA is purchasing, they note, may lack the electrical power or environmental conditions necessary to support many experiments.