Spaceflight Now: STS-106 Mission Report

Russian economic troubles still cloud space station

Posted: September 6, 2000

An artist's concept of Progress 251/1P nearing the International Space Station. Photo: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
As NASA gears up to launch the shuttle Atlantis Friday on a space station outfitting mission, the Russian Space Agency is at loggerheads with the Russian Ministry of Finance over funding for nine critical station flights in 2001.

Mikhail Sinelshikov, chief of piloted programs with the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, said today the Russian Duma is expected to debate space funding as early as Sept. 14, four days after Atlantis docks with the international space station.

"I can anticipate you probably will be asking me about the financing situation and I would like to tell you up front that this is still an issue," he said. "At the same time, we have managed to comply with the requirements as far as the year 2000 goes. Currently, we are working very hard on the financing for the years 2001 and 2002."

In an unusually frank discussion, he described the on-going budget negotiations as "a very complicated and cumbersome process."

"We have come up with certain projected amount of money we would need next year and so far, the Ministry of Finance has not accepted this request," he said, "which is a very natural thing, that's the way it always happens.

"That's the way we deal with our Ministry of Finance almost all the time," he said. "It's an ugly process, actually, it's very difficult, cumbersome and unpleasant process of dealing with the Ministry of Finance and actually getting this money from them."

But the Russian parliament is scheduled to meet on Sept. 14 and "we expect this issue will be elevated to a Duma discussion," Sinelshikov said. "It's a rather difficult situation. But I have to tell you we've been living under such circumstances for a long period of time and we are rather optimistic. We are not discouraged, we think we're going to make it all happen."

With just two modules in orbit - the U.S. Unity node and Russia's Zarya propulsion module - space station assembly began in earnest July 12 when the long-delayed Russian Zvezda command module was successfully launched.

NASA animation shows Atlantis docked to space station on STS-106 with a Progress attached on the far end. Photo: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
Running two years behind schedule because of Russian funding problems and, more recently, trouble with the Proton rocket needed to launch it, Zvezda docked with the international space station on July 26. A Russian Progress supply ship loaded with fuel and equipment docked on Aug. 8.

The primary goal of Atlantis's flight is to move supplies into the station and to activate critical systems in the new Zvezda module before launch of the lab's first full-time crew in late October. From that point forward, the station will be permanently staffed.

On Oct. 5, NASA plans to launch a package of stabilizing gyroscopes to the station and at the end of November, a huge solar array module. If all goes well, the U.S. lab module Destiny - the scientific heart of the space station - will be launched in late January.

Russia is responsible for launching three Progress supply ships this year, the Soyuz ferry craft that will deliver the first full-time crew and the Zvezda module. Next year, six Progress supply ships are required, two Soyuz crew transfer ships and a docking compartment.

Sinelshikov said this year's missions are funded and on track. But there is not yet complete funding for the nine 2001 flights and the outlook is cloudy for major downstream Russian modules like the science power platform solar arrays and a universal docking module.

But Russian space officials are hopeful Russian President Vladimir Putin will deliver on a promise of 1.5 billion rubles.

"This is still an issue and it has not been resolved as of yet," Sinelshikov said. He added that Russia's prime minister has set a deadline of two weeks for resolving the space funding crisis.

An illustration of a Progress cargo freighter.
"This $1.5 billion rubles is needed," Sinelshikov said. "We would like to make sure we are on our way to the next year. We need to do some work, some very important work, right now in order to make sure we're going to be OK as far as the year 2001 is concerned."

Veteran shuttle commander Robert Cabana, currently serving as manager of international operations for the space station program, said NASA is developing contingency plans to keep the station supplied and in the proper orbit in case Russia is unable to deliver all nine vehicles next year.

Progress supply ships are deliver both dry cargo and the propellant needed to keep the station at a safe altitude.

"Our primary concern would be providing propellant to the space station and supplies and equipment for the crew," Cabana said. "If we knew we were going to have a shortfall in Progress vehicles, we'd look at using more propellant on the Progress and less cargo and use the shuttle for transferring cargo. Also, we can use the space shuttle to reboost the station."

But NASA managers remain hopeful the Russian funding woes will be favorably resolved.

"Right now, we're counting on our Russian partners to deliver the Progress vehicles and get them on orbit," Cabana said. "But we do have plans in place to provide stability for the station using the shuttle if that's required."