Space Station Debacle - $7 Billion More And 3 Years Later
By Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A planned international space station, hobbled by problems in Russia, may cost the United States $7 billion more than it budgeted and be assembled up to three years late, an expert panel told NASA on Thursday. Instead of the $17.4 billion the National Aeronautics and Space Administration estimated as its share of the cost, the true figure will probably be $24.7 billion, the independent panel reported.
The station is also likely to be delayed one to three years beyond its expected completion date of December 2003, it said. While the panel said NASA had an unrealistic vision of how much the program would cost and how long it would take, it also faulted Russia. ``The schedule uncertainty associated with Russian implementation ... is the major threat to the (space station) program,'' it said.
The United States has paid more than $17 billion as its share of the cost of the global station. European, Japanese, Canadian and Italian space agencies have also contributed. But for more than a year, financial and political uncertainty in Russia has plagued the project.
The Russian space agency is slated to provide a service module for the project, but the independent panel warned that inadequate funding for the module would push the station's timetable back four months, in addition to an already announced delay of eight months.
Russian funding problems left over from fiscal 1997 are delaying parts for the module, the report said, and ``there are no hard indicators that adequate Russian funding will be provided any time soon for fiscal year 1998 and beyond.''
The experts, headed by Jay Chabrow, noted that an international program of the space station's scope and duration was bound to have to make adjustments for differences in each participating country's capabilities.
But it said NASA was wrong to assume it could save $1 billion if the Russians provided two key parts of the station -- a ``functional cargo block'' and a vehicle to assure the safe return of the station's crew to Earth.
``The continuing economic situation in Russia has also negated most of the $1.5 billion in schedule savings to be achieved through their involvement,'' the report added. The space station, conceived in the early 1980s, has been repeatedly redesigned and rebudgeted to try to keep costs in line and the program on schedule.
It has been a popular target of critics in the U.S. Congress, especially last year, as the world watched a series of mishaps aboard the orbiting Russian space station Mir with U.S. astronauts aboard.
The aging Mir was a concern of the expert panel, which said the current Russian plan to bring Mir down -- ``de-orbit it,'' in the report's phrase -- in late 1999, a year later than NASA wanted, ``foreshadows a Russian logistics impact to the current ISS assembly sequence.'' In the panel's view, the Russian space agency cannot handle both the Mir program and its commitments to the international space station. The report was posted on the World Wide Web at

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