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  sci-tech > space > story pagecorner  
Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

New Year, new problems for International Space Station

Modules
The first components of the International Space Station to reach orbit are the Zarya (left) and Unity modules.  

In this story:

A 'star' not yet born

Warranty about to expire on Zarya

Astronaut: Apollo was easier

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



January 7, 2000
Web posted at: 12:20 p.m. EST (1720 GMT)

By Miles O'Brien
CNN Correspondent

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Ah the New Year. Time for a clean slate. Out with the old -- in with the new. Resolutions are made. Optimism runneth over. Unfortunately for NASA's marquee manned programs, the new century begins with more of the same.

If the space shuttle program had its way, it would fly seven missions this year. By recent standards, that is a routine schedule. From 1992 through 1997, seven or eight shuttles left launch complex 39 at the Cape each year. During that time, shuttle crews were deploying and fixing satellites, repairing Hubble (twice), serving as weightless lab techs and guinea pigs, learning the tricks of the 0-G building trades for the International Space Station construction project ... and paying eight visits to Mir.

  MESSAGE BOARD
International Space Station
 

It was nice work while they could get it.

Now it seems the shuttle fleet is hard-wired and fixed-up with no place to fly. Of the seven missions planned for '00, six were destined for the space station. Shuttle crews are in training to haul some gear and fire up some systems, add a truss, a docking port, some solar panels, and the U.S. laboratory ("Destiny," as it is dubbed).

A 'star' not yet born

Zvezda
The Russian Service Module, Zvezda.  

But manifest destiny is not smiling on the STS and ISS programs at the moment. The cornerstone of the station -- the part that must be ratcheted into place before the real heavy lifting (and living) can begin -- is the Russian-built Service Module. Christened Zvezda (Russian for "star"), the SM has been more like a black hole -- sucking the momentum out of the $30 billion, 16-nation extravaganza.

In case you missed it, the Russians are now thinking it may be mid to late summer before they will strap Zvezda onto a Proton rocket and send it on its way to a remote controlled union with the aluminum tube it was built to supersede: Zarya ("sunrise"), the temporary space "tug" that the United States commissioned the Russians to build (for $190 million) to keep things aloft at the outset. Zvezda is about two and a half years tardy.

  INTERACTIVE
Explore the International Space Station

ISS 360 degree tour
 

By all accounts, Zvezda is finally ready, but its ride is not. A pair of Proton launch failures (the last one in October took out a commercial payload) have made the Russians understandably reluctant to stack Zvezda atop a Proton just yet. The latest word from the Russian Aviation and Space Agency (RASA) is they will launch three Protons (with payloads) before flying Zvezda.

(This is an ironic turn of events: First launched in 1965, the Proton over the years has earned a reputation as an invulnerable workhorse. I doubt space station planners predicted this hurdle.)

In any case, the delay on the Kazakh steppe leaves a big blank in the shuttle launch timetable along the Florida coast.

Warranty about to expire on Zarya

Proton
A Russian Proton rocket carried the first module of the ISS into orbit.  

That is part of the reason NASA will split one of the shuttle/station missions in two: A grounded shuttle team is not a happy team. But there are some other reasons to fly now.

Zarya's certified "sunset" in vacant mode is fast approaching (it's about 400 days -- give or take) and it is showing signs of wear. In particular its batteries is are failing. It's like all the things I buy: programmed to fail just as the warranty expires.

So instead of firing up systems and stocking cupboards on Zvezda for the first permanent space station occupants, Atlantis Commander Jim Halsell and the STS-101 team will be tinkering with balky batteries on Zarya.

This flight probably will launch sometime in April. The high pole in the tent dictating the date is the wiring inspection sparked (sorry) by the short circuit during Columbia's launch in July (STS-93) .

"Atlantis was third in line (behind Discovery and Endeavour)," said Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore. "We didn't start working hot and heavy on Atlantis' wiring until September."

STS-101: The Sequel (a.k.a.: STS-106) will then fly to the station as soon as Zvezda is in place (late summer or fall) to do the mission the crew has been training for all this time. But will it be all the same players? Well, I would not be surprised if there is at least one fresh face in the front row.

Commander Halsell, you may recall, was in the driver's seat of Columbia in April of 1997 (STS-83) when one of the orbiter's power generating fuel cells started acting up. What was to be a 16-day microgravity science lab marathon became a four day sprint back home. But the entire crew got a second chance to try again three months later. That time (STS-97), they did the full Micro-G Monty -- and Halsell penned a bonus orbiter landing in his log book.

As one astronaut told me (tongue firmly in cheek): "If Halsell gets to fly both missions this time, we're gonna put a contract out on him."

Crew assignments aside, it looks to be a light to moderate launch year at the Cape. Endeavour's radar mapping mission (STS-99), the bifurcated STS-101 and (depending on when things fly into place) maybe two more space station construction runs (STS-92 and -97) are the best NASA can hope for now. Five missions. Literally a handful.

Astronaut: Apollo was easier

Bottom line is, this space station project is a handful like no other. I asked astronaut and now ISS Deputy Program Manger Bob Cabana if Apollo was easier. "Sure," he said without hesitation. "We did that one on our own. It's always easier when you run things in house."

It has to be tough for the crews as they train and train -- only watch their launch dates slip sliding away.

All of this leads me to a humble suggestion to ISS brass still searching for a name for the sprawling outpost in space: Godot. After all, all we seem to do is wait for it.

Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien is a regular columnist for CNN.com.

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