Accessibility links

Californians Await Russian Partners For Space Station Test

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Washington, March 29 (RFE/RL) - Ed Gholdston is a physicist who works for the Rocketdyne Division of Rockwell, an American aeronautics giant that is working with Russian partners as part of the International Space Station Project. The space station represents history's largest peacetime project, Gholdston notes. And its launching will usher in the 21st century with two of the 20th century's leading enemies working together as colleagues. Rocketdyne is working with two Moscow-based firms - RSG Energia and Khrunichev - on the electrical components to supply power to an orbiting space station that will be an amalgam of modules from the various international partners.

The first critical step will be taken in the second half of April, when several Khrunichev engineer-technicians travel to the Los Angeles suburb of Canoga Park to test a mechanism that they have invented to convert different voltages of electricity so that power can flow freely between the American and Russian segments of the space station. These segments form the heart of the modular space station. The fact that such a converter is necessary stems from the project's origin in the Cold War "space race," in which the Soviet Union and the United States competed, in deepest secrecy and mutual suspicion. As a result of that beginning, the present partners find themselves with systems that generate different levels of electrical current that now must function as one. Rather than require the Russian partners to abandon years of effort, both sides are respecting the work of the other by developing an interface that can translate the different voltages to provide the space station with the common output of electricity that it will need to support its full-time crew and the experiments that they will conduct. Gholdston says he is amazed at the transformation of the former "space race" into a "space partnership." Besides Russia and the United States, the International Space Station Project involves the European Union, Canada and Japan.

"It never crossed my mind when I began as a physicist," Gholdston recalls, "that we would one day find ourselves on the same team" with Russians. It's a good thing, too, he adds, because "no single economy could have supported a project of this magnitude." The electrical interface that will convert electrical power between the U.S. module and the Russian module will be tested in Canoga Park through June. If all goes well, more extensive follow-up tests will take place there in September so that the Russians can complete their work on the interface in time to install it on the module to be launched into orbit late next year. In terms of space launchings, that's a tight schedule, Gholdston says, but he has every confidence in the abilities of the international team. Of his Russian colleagues, he says, "We find them all very technically competent and a pleasure to work with." The project's official language is English. But a number of Rocketdyne's engineers are virtually native Russian speakers. Moreover, the Russian engineers -- few of whom can speak English because there was no reason to when working on top secret projects during the Cold War -- are now avidly studying the language. Gholdston says "a lot" of his Russian colleagues "are learning fast." One of them, he adds, gets up at 4 o'clock five mornings a week to study English before beginning his work at RSC Energia. But, the human element aside, it is critical that the impending tests succeed if the launch schedule is to be met. Gholdston says "this interface has to work" in order for the project to move ahead. The Russian partners are building the hardware. They are to deliver it in April in Moscow to the space stations's coordinator, the Boeing Company of Seattle. Boeing will bring the equipment to California with the Russian staff to test it with the Rocketdyne technicians. If all goes well, it will be riding aboard the first space station module, built in Russia, which is to lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan late next year.