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Russia: Uncertain Economy Threatens Space Project

Washington, 28 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. oversight panel says the uncertain financial and economic situation in Russia is the single greatest threat to the future of the international space station.

An independent panel made up of American experts and scientists made the comment in a report to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) last week.

The international space station is a joint project funded by agencies in the U.S., Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada and had been intended to be completed by December 2003. Construction was initially estimated to cost about 40,000 million dollars and is envisioned as a cluster of space laboratories more than 400 kilometers above the Earth.

But problems have plagued the project since its inception, including inadequate funding, poor international coordination and numerous redesigns. However, according to the panel, the biggest problem currently facing the international space station is Russia's inability to meet its financial and scientific obligations.

The panel says that inadequate funding by Russia of critical aspects of the construction, including the responsibility for building an important cargo block and a vehicle to ensure the safe return of the station's crew to Earth, have resulted in numerous delays and schedule slippages that have adversely affected the entire project.

The panel wrote: "The schedule uncertainty associated with Russian implementation.... is the major threat to the program,"

The panel was also pessimistic about the chances that the situation in Russia would improve anytime soon.

Says the panel: "With continuing funding shortfalls carrying into 1998, the absence of any hard indicators that adequate Russian funding will be provided soon, and the recent cabinet shake-up in Moscow, it is likely the Russian Space Agency elements will experience further delays."

But the panel also laid some of the blame on NASA's management for the "faulty assumption" of assigning Russia the task of building a critical cargo block and a hi-tech crew return vehicle in the hopes that it would save the U.S. space agency $1.5 billion.

The panel concluded that the unstable economic situation in Russia has already "negated most of the $1.5 billion in scheduled savings to be achieved through their involvement."

The panel says that the Russians are delinquent with $45 million in funding for fiscal year 1997, and there are no indications that Russian funds will be provided "anytime soon" for fiscal year 1998 and beyond.

The panel also says it is concerned that the Russian Space Agency has decided to delay the de-orbiting of the Mir space station until late 1999, a full year later than NASA had requested.

As a result, the panel says it is doubtful the Russian Space Agency will be able to effectively meet its commitments to both Mir and the international space station.

The panel noted, however, that a diminished level of participation by the Russians would "significantly" alter the current space station assembly sequence and final design.

In order to prepare for this possibility, says the panel, "contingency activities" by NASA should be immediately undertaken in order to reduce the risks that could drive U.S. costs much higher.

Overall, the panel concludes that the international space station will likely cost the U.S. $7 billion more than initially estimated, and its construction may be delayed one to three years beyond its expected completion date of 2003.

NASA initially budgeted $17.4 billion for the space station. But the U.S. has already paid more than that, says the panel, and estimates by the time the station is finally assembled, the U.S. will have contributed more than $24.7 billion.