Prague, 19 November 1998 (RFE/RL) - When a Russian Proton rocket blasts off tomorrow carrying the first module for the new International Space Station (ISS), the launch will herald the start of the world's biggest-ever space project.
The launch from Baikonur in Kazakhstan is just the first of some 50 U.S. and Russian missions which, over the next six years, will carry components for the new space station into orbit. The parts will be assembled in space by cosmonauts and astronauts into a research facility whose living and working space -- by the time it is completed in 2004 -- will be the size of the today's largest passenger planes, or five times larger than the Mir space station.
Friday's launch carries a Russian-built control module nicknamed "Zarya" (or "Sunrise" in Russian). It will provide the initial propulsion and power for the station during its assembly phase.
Next month, a U.S. Space Shuttle is due to rendezvous with Zarya and add a U.S.-constructed linking unit. That will allow additional modules to be connected to the first.
Then, next July, another Russian-built service module will go up to provide a construction-site home for three astronauts and cosmonauts, who will come aboard early in 2000. They will be the first of many in-space work teams which will eventually spend some 1,500 hours assembling the full space station.
Space experts estimate that by the time the station is finished, it will have cost up to $60 billion to build. It will provide up to six scientists at a time with an unrivaled vantage point for studying such subjects as astronomy and the Earth's environment. It's laboratories will also permit research into developing new medicines and products using the special conditions of zero-gravity.
Wayne Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), says the space station will be open to researchers worldwide. "Right now the station is anticipated to stay up for approximately 15 years ... The whole world's research community, not just the United States and the other nations that are contributing (to financing the station) will be using it.... It will certainly be open to other researchers as we get to full completion (of the station) in the year 2004. This is an international project, it is for the entire world and it will eventually be open to all researchers."
The ISS marks the first time that most of the world's countries doing space science have teamed up to go into space together. Sixteen countries are directly involved in the station, which will orbit some 350 kilometers above our planet. They include Russia, the United States, the Western European countries in the European Space Agency, Canada, and Japan.
Financing for the station has been complicated by Russia's economic problems. The financial problems reached a head during Russia's latest economic downturn, which began in August. Correspondents say that the whole ISS program threatened to collapse as Russia could not find funds for the living quarters module due to be launched next July. After an emergency meeting in Moscow, NASA promised to purchase Russian goods and services worth $660 million in order to save the project.
Moscow's problems in contributing to the space station has focused increasing attention in Russia on the Russian Space Agency's (RSA) dire financial straits. Itar-Tass reported this week that budget allocations to the Russian space sector were just $330 million in 1996, a space budget it said was comparable with India's. Disbursements of even that amount have been plagued by delays, forcing the RSA to halt most of its space research and suspend several programs.
The new space station provides the RSA with welcome financial partners in hard times and RSA Director Yuri Koptev recently said it will secure up to 80,000 Russian space jobs for the next 15 years. But the ISS also may spell the end to Russia keeping its own flagship space station -- Mir -- in orbit in the future.
Mir is scheduled to come down as the new station goes up, with current plans calling for dropping it into the Pacific Ocean in the middle of next year.
But Russian officials appear divided on whether to give up their venerable spaceship. Mir, originally expected to last five years but still functioning after 12, served as the model for many aspects of the new International Space Station.
In one sign that the world could have two space stations at least for a while, an aide to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, said early this week that Mir might stay in orbit into early 2000 or even longer.