BAIKONUR, Kazakstan - The rocket that will carry the long-delayed International Space Station's service module into orbit was prepared for fueling Tuesday as workers made last-minute checks to ensure a smooth launch.
Both Russia and the United States have a lot riding on the success of Zvezda, which will be the heart of the 16-nation space station project. In addition to containing flight controls and the sewage system, the Zvezda will be a hub for future modules and is where the crew will sleep.
It was a quiet day Tuesday at the Baikonur cosmodrome, located on the remote steppe of this Central Asian nation, with the giant Proton-K rocket standing at its launch pad and most preparations already completed for today's launch. Workers measured temperatures at the rocket's base and readied it for the fuel that will be pumped into its tanks just before the launch.
The 22-ton, 43-foot-long segment, which Russia says cost about $320 million to build, has taxed the country's dwindling resources and put the U.S.-led project more than two years behind schedule, casting doubts on Russia's reliability as a major partner.
The launch could have come sooner if not for two crashes of Proton rockets. Russia insists problems with the rocket have been worked out, and it has put several satellites into orbit with the help of Proton rockets since the crashes.
The Zvezda module will go into orbit unmanned, docking several days later by computer with two other space station components that were launched in 1998. The first crew could go to the station by October, NASA has said.
Two cosmonauts will be prepared to launch to Zvezda aboard a Soyuz rocket if the automatic linkup goes wrong.
A failed launch would be a major setback for the project and Russia's attempts to retain its image as a leading space power, which it gained by putting the first satellite and the first man into space.
Delays on the Zvezda - which means "star" in Russian - already have cost the project an estimated $3 billion, and some members of the U.S. Congress are questioning whether to fund NASA's spending projections on the $60 billion project, particularly after the failed launches of two Mars missions last year.
The U.S. General Accounting office has accused Russia of failing to meet NASA safety standards in building Zvezda, saying the module's magnesium and aluminum skin may not adequately protect against collisions with space junk and that equipment will fail if cabin pressure is lost.
Russia insists that Zvezda is reliable and that the ISS is a priority, and President Vladimir Putin has promised that the country will meet its commitments.
The Zvezda launch costs were partly defrayed by U.S. pizza chain Pizza Hut, which put a giant advertisement on the side of the Proton rocket. The ad was not visible Tuesday, because the rocket was mostly covered by scaffolding from the launch tower.
The station is still nowhere near complete. Dozens more modules have to be built, and the station is expected to be finished by 2005 at the earliest, with 46 more planned space launches.