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NASA Looks Back on First Phase of Space Station Assembly, Worries About Future - 2001-12-17

The U.S. space agency NASA looks back on a year in which it finished the first phase of space station assembly.

A new Canadian robot arm mounted in April and a pressurized foyer connected in July allow continued construction and spacewalks from the U.S. module to occur independent of shuttle visits. The three-person crew rotations and a few dozen research experiments have become routine since the station was first occupied in November 2000.

The plan is eventually to expand the crew to seven. This would enable a more ambitious research schedule to fulfill NASA's goal of a full time, modern laboratory in orbit.

But the plan may not be met. NASA revealed early this year that station costs exceed its budget through 2006 by at least $4 billion dollars. The Bush administration is forcing NASA to absorb the costs.

So the agency dropped plans to build a bigger dormitory and emergency escape vehicle for larger crews. Deputy station program manager Bill Gerstenmeier said NASA is discussing ways to overcome the problem with partner countries. "We're asking for suggestions," he said. "We're not necessarily saying, "We need this capability from you." We have talked to them in general terms and said, "Here's the basic things that we need. Are there any components in these areas that you would be willing to provide for us?"

That NASA cannot meet its original station obligations became clearer in a November report by an independent advisory council of U.S. aerospace experts. The head of the panel, Thomas Young, told Congress that NASA's budget is insufficient to pay for the station as envisioned without radical changes in the program. "I don't think there's any question a three person crew adversely impacts the science. On the other hand, the original space station would require several billion dollars than has currently been identified to be available for the program," he said.

Mr. Young's report said space station costs have nearly doubled from $17 billion to $30 billion, mostly because NASA underestimated expenses and extended the construction schedule more than four years.

His panel suggested cutting the number of shuttle flights to the station and lengthening the time between crew exchanges. It said crew size could be reduced by getting research support from the Russian cosmonauts who fly up periodically to exchange Soyuz escape rockets.

NASA is studying the recommendations, but agency official Gerstenmeier said he is confident the full facility will be built as planned. "The overall program still envisions the seven crew capability of space station and realizing the end state. We don't know the details of how to get there yet," he said. "The international partners are openly discussing the options with us and and I think we're going to figure out a way to solve this thing and end up with the station the we want to end up with."

For the moment, it is business as usual for the space station program. Five shuttles are still scheduled to dock in 2002, adding 50 tons of hardware and bringing up two new crews.

With so much at stake, President Bush named a government budget office official, Sean O'Keefe, to succeed Daniel Goldin as NASA administrator. The nomination was a signal that space station spending must be controlled. Mr. O'Keefe said he believes it can be with the aid of the advisory panel's recommendations. "I don't think this is not worth the money," he said. "I think we have to make sure that what we get from this program is good as we can get it for the money we're going to spend."

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001