Science & Technology in Congress
Since the Russians were officially announced as a partner of the International Space Station in 1992, congressional leaders have kept a watchful eye on the beleaguered program, fearing that Russia would be unable to meet its commitments. It appears that their fears were not unfounded. Before a hearing of the House Science Committee on April 9, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight Wilbur Trafton announced that due to Russia's inability to provide a key component of the space station, construction would be delayed up to 11 months. First element launch has now slipped from November 1997 to "no later" than October 1998.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI), Chairman of the House Science Committee, convened the hearing with the following sentence, "I have spent the last four years hoping that I would not have to utter the words, 'I told you so.' But I think the day has finally come." He continued his opening statement with a litany of promises made by the Administration, NASA, and the Russian government and noted that each promise made did not come to realization. Other congressional leaders such as Rep. Bud Cramer (D-AL) and Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) also expressed their disappointment and frustration over the delay of the $60 billion orbital outpost. However, they, and Rep. Sensenbrenner, were quick to point out that they continue to support the International Space Station program regardless of this major setback.
In his statement before the Science Committee, Trafton announced that in addition to the schedule slip, $200 million would be reallocated from the Space Shuttle program to ensure that NASA is able to prepare a contingency plan in the event the Russians fail to deliver the Service Module. The Russian Service Module is a key component of the space station and considered to be in the "critical path" of the development of a fully operational outpost. The module provides housing for the astronauts and includes crucial avionics for maintaining proper orbit. Without the Service Module the space station would eventually be dragged back to Earth by its gravitational pull. Mr. Trafton announced that NASA is studying several options to reduce the station's reliance on the Russians including a replacement to the Service Module. Options include modifying another component to the station called the Functional Cargo Block or modifying an existing satellite system built by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. News of the $200 million reallocation of Shuttle funds was not well received by Committee members. As NASA requests for Space Shuttle funding has declined, concern over shuttle safety has increased; this is especially true given the recent problems with fuel cells.
In response to NASA's announcement, Rep. Sensenbrenner and Ranking Democrat Rep. George Brown (D-CA) introduced an amendment during the Science Committee markup of H.R. 1275, the "Civilian Space Authorization Act." The Sesenbrenner-Brown Amendment imposed a "decision process" rather than a "solution process" on the Administration for dealing with the Russian partners. The amendment, which was passed by the Science Committee, seeks to accomplish five tasks. First, it prohibits the transfer of funds to the Russians to pay for any work on elements that they had pledged to contribute and build in the original international agreement. Second, it requires NASA to outline a contingency plan for replacing each element of Russian hardware in the critical path. Third, it requires NASA to certify every month that Russia is, or is not, performing on schedule. Fourth, it requires the President of the United States to decide by August 1, 1997, whether or not to provide a permanent replacement for the Service Module. And finally, it prohibits sending any more U.S. astronauts to the Russian Mir station unless NASA certifies that Mir meets or exceeds U.S. safety standards.