Science & Technology in Congress
On February 12, the House Science Committee held a hearing to discuss the status of Russian participation in the International Space Station Program. The focus of the hearing was on a meeting earlier in the month between Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to discuss Russia's commitment as a full partner in the project. Russia announced last fall that that Service Module, which would provide orbit control and life support to the station, is running eight months behind schedule due to lack of funding. With other components of the station scheduled for launch in less than a year, the delay in such a critical element could jeopardize the project.
Dr. John H. Gibbons, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) testified on the results of the Gore-Chernomyrdin meeting. He stressed the importance of Russian experience and technology to the success of the Space Station. According to Dr. Gibbons, the Prime Minister Chernomyrdin promised the Vice President that the Russian government would provide the necessary funds to get the Service Module back under construction by the end of February. Dr. Gibbons also acknowledged the need for contingency plans, should more schedule problems arise with the Service Module. He outlined two possible backup plans: use existing hardware from the Naval Research Laboratory to keep the Station in orbit; or adapt a Russian designed component called a Functional Cargo Block (FGB) to serve as a "more robust interim control module" until a Service Module could be completed.
The other witnesses before the Committee also placed great importance on Russian participation in the Space Station project. Daniel Goldin, NASA Administrator, detailed the success and importance of joint U.S.-Russia space programs and defended the Administration's decision to bring Russia in as a full partner on the project. However, he also articulated the frustration experienced by Congress and the Administration by the lack of progress on the Service Module and voiced the need for an alternative solution should Russia prove unable to complete the component. "While I am cautiously optimistic, that this time, the commitment will result in funding," testified Mr. Goldin, "we will take action based only on observed performance, not on mere statements of intent."
Testimony from Marcia Smith, specialist in aerospace and telecommunications policy for the Congressional Research Service (CRS), provided a sobering assessment of the critical nature of the Russian contribution to the Space Station project. Regarding the Administration's 1993 decision to make Russia a partner in the Space Station project, Smith said, "It was clear almost immediately that Russia's role was enabling, not enhancing. That is, the space station cannot be built as currently designed without Russia." Smith continued, asserting that if Russia cannot come up with the Service Module in time, the Space Station will have to be redesigned. This would increase the cost and throw off the schedule. More importantly, too much last minute tinkering with the Station's design could compromise the success of the project.
While Congress continues to be frustrated with the uncertainty surrounding the Service Module's status, the Space Station retains wide bipartisan support, even if Russian participation does not. The Service Module crisis will come to a head at the end of February or early in March when the Administration will determine if the Russians are adequately funding the project, and what steps, if any, it will take.