INQUIRER WASHINGTON BUREAU
WASHINGTON - For nearly 20 months, the cavernous International Space Station has floated 240 miles above Earth empty and virtually useless. That is about to change.
After delays that have cost the United States billions of dollars, Russia will launch the space station's service module at 12:56 a.m. Philadelphia time tomorrow from remote Kazakstan. The 43-foot-long Zvezda - Russian for star - is the heart of the station.
It will provide its crew a place to live, a docking port for resupply ships, life support systems and propulsion systems, enabling the space station to stay in the proper orbit.
This launch is "probably the single most crucial launch in the space station," said John Pike, space policy director for the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington think tank. "It's a small piece that's had an awful lot of attention. It's had an awful lot of problems."
For years, NASA and the Russians have been dickering over the service module, its preparations and readiness. It was supposed to launch in April 1998. But a cash-poor Russian space program delayed paying its contractors, thus slowing construction.
To get the module finished, NASA had to waive some safety regulations, including standards for cabin noise, risk from punctures by orbital trash, and problems from potential pressure drops, according to a March report by the U.S. General Accounting Office.
A series of problems with the Russian Proton rocket needed to heft the service module into orbit also delayed the launch.
An internal NASA study, cited by the GAO, said in January 1999 that Russian delays had cost the U.S. space agency $3 billion. NASA, which once promised to pay no more than $17.1 billion on the station, now puts its cost at $24 billion to $26 billion - excluding 39 space shuttle flights at $435 million apiece according to the GAO. They bring U.S. costs up to $43 billion.
The shuttles' main mission over the next seven years is to build the station.
In November and December 1998, NASA and Russia sent up the first two parts of the space station, expecting the service module shortly afterward. The first two parts orbited for so long they started sinking back to Earth and needed the shuttle to push them back into proper orbit.
Wednesday's launch of the service module "should get the space station back on track," said Marcia Smith, Congressional Research Service analyst. "It should affect the pace, because the pace has been pretty much zero."
After two weeks of checkout in orbit, the module will dock with the rest of the station, using a Russian automatic system. In the next year, "the U.S. and the Russians need to accomplish 16 launches" to the station, said NASA deputy associate administrator Mike Hawes, who oversees the project.
The first crew, headed by American astronaut William Shepherd, is expected to launch from Russia this fall and stay about four months, marking the beginning of a continuous human presence in space.
By the time the station is complete, slated for 2005, it will be 262 feet long and 365 feet wide, weigh 1 million pounds, have six labs and support a crew of seven.