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Washington Journal: U.S. Space Shuttle Poised To Launch

Washington, 27 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. is confident all will go well with today's (Thursday's) space shuttle launch, despite a long delay between flights and a series of failed rocket launches since last summer.

The space shuttle Discovery is set to lift off with a crew of seven -- five Americans, one Canadian and one Russian -- and a heavy load of computers, tools and other space equipment to help construct the International Space Station.

The multi-billion dollar station is being built by sixteen countries and will take an estimated 1,500 hours and dozens of astronauts to assemble. Completion of the orbiting station is scheduled for the year 2004, but is expected to become operational as early as January 2000. The first crew to man the station will be composed of one American and two Russians.

Today's shuttle flight was originally scheduled for months earlier but had to be postponed due to Russian delays with key components of the new station and troubles with an advanced U.S. X-ray telescope. As a result, six months have now passed since the last shuttle flight. This is the longest gap since the 1986 catastrophic launch of the space shuttle Challenger. The U.S. stopped all shuttle flights for more than two years after that accident which killed all seven crew members.

Some of Discovery's astronauts have expressed reservation with the long delay between flights. Discovery's commander, Kent Rominger, is quoted this week by the Associated Press as saying the shuttle's inactivity may cause problems. He added: "The worst thing you can do with an airplane is to leave it sitting around for days, weeks, months."

But Bruce Buckingham, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Kennedy Space Center told RFE/RL that the agency is "extremely confident" the launch will go off without any major difficulties.

Buckingham says NASA has worked the launch and flight teams hard during the past six months, fully trained the astronauts, and conducted numerous simulations and mock countdowns in order to prepare for the launch. He adds that the orbiter and ship receive continuous checks whether it is being launched or not. "We are very confident that the hardware is good and we're not going to have any troubles at all that we can't handle."

But some observers say NASA is also undoubtedly affected by six failed rocket launches that have occurred since last August. Two rockets exploded after take-off, three have gone astray in orbit, and one plunged back to Earth, destroying the expensive satellite it carried. The last time such a fatal string of errors in space launches occurred was during the mid-1980's, including the Challenger accident.

None of the six recently failed rocket launches was conducted by NASA -- three were done by the U.S. Air Force, and two by private companies. However, the same contractors that made the rockets also built the shuttles.

But Buckingham insists the shuttle Discovery is ready and safe. He adds that while it would be desirable to have more frequent launches, the delays will not prove to be deadly. He also says cooperation between NASA and the Russian Space Agency remains close.

Buckingham told our Washington correspondent that the presence of Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev on board Thursday's shuttle is "very critical" to the flight, "as are the Russians to the whole station process."

Tokarev, who has been a part of the Russian cosmonaut corps since 1987, will be a mission specialist on the flight. Buckingham says he'll take part in moving supplies from the shuttle to the space station and assisting with the installation of a Russian-built mechanical arm.

But Buckingham acknowledges that NASA remains concerned about potential future delays on the International Space Station, including the possibility that Russia will be distracted from its tasks by continuing to operate the Mir space station indefinitely. On Tuesday, deputy director of the Russian Space Agency Boris Ostroumov said Mir will stay up until next year and possibly longer if the program manages to acquire private funding.

Ostroumov explained: "We've got more than 10 tons of scientific hardware on board the Mir station. I thought Americans are very practical people. It simply does not make too much sense to get rid of such a treasure."

Buckingham says there is little the U.S. can do other than to make its concerns clear. He adds that as long as the Russians "truly focus" on the tasks assigned to them for the International Space Station, the construction will be able to continue as scheduled.

"As far as what Mir is going to be doing, it's really, truly up to them to decide that. It's their space station and we'd like to give our say and input into that. But we've basically left it up to the Russians to decide what to do with their station."