CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- With robotic and computer problems finally under control, NASA is gearing up for another round of space station construction - this time to install a front door for spacewalking astronauts.
After a month's delay, space shuttle Atlantis is set to blast off Thursday with the $164 million air lock. The countdown began Monday morning. The pressure chamber will complete a major phase of construction for the 2 1/2 -year-old international space station and provide its residents with easier access to spacewalks.
Yet at a time when managers should be reveling in their success 240 miles up - this will be the seventh shuttle flight to the station in less than a year - mundane money problems abound.
This time, it's not the Russian Space Agency.
With space station budget overruns topping $4 billion over the next five years, NASA is being forced to slash major projects - and shrink space station Alpha and its work force in orbit and on Earth.
This strategy to meet President Bush's budget would limit the international space station to a crew of three, its current number, rather than the intended six or seven. That would drastically curtail research aboard a laboratory described by NASA as the most sophisticated one ever flown.
As it is, two space station residents spend virtually all their time keeping the place running while the third also devotes a good part of each day to operations. Science work is minimal.
Equipment problems have added to the crew's load.
In April, command-and-control computers broke down in quick succession, snarling space station operations. The shoulder joint of the newly installed Canadian robot arm had to be nursed in May and June via software, delaying Atlantis' upcoming flight.
A. Thomas Young, a retired Maryland aerospace executive who is heading an external review of NASA's budget crunch, fears the space station research objectives could go into a "death spiral" if the proposed cuts are carried out.
"If you say, OK, we've only got a three-person crew, then it's easy to say we don't need all the science because the people can't operate the science," Young said late last week. "Then you don't buy the hardware. Then if sometime in the future something changes and you've got the (full) crew size back, then you wouldn't have the hardware."
By scaling back on research and commercialization, and eliminating a U.S.-funded lifeboat and living quarters that would accommodate seven people, NASA hopes to cover all but $484 million of the budget shortfall through 2006. The space station overruns escalated to $4.8 billion in recent weeks, but settled around $4 billion after managers found an additional $800 million in savings.
Michael Hawes, deputy associate administrator for the space station, acknowledges that NASA's problems become the European Space Agency's problems, and the Japanese Space Agency's problems, and the Canadian Space Agency's problems. These countries were counting on a full-size crew in order to conduct their own research and fly their own astronauts. The Italians, in fact, are considering supplying the habitation module for NASA so more of their own people can fly.
NASA says it did not realize the magnitude of building and staffing the international space station until the launch of Russia's service module one year ago this week.
The service module, essentially the crew quarters, went into orbit on July 12, 2000, following more than two years of delay caused by Russia's economic crisis. The hiatus proved expensive for NASA; the agency had to conduct extra tests on its stockpiled space station parts and keep a vast work force in place for development longer than intended.
Some money, though, was poorly spent.
NASA's inspector general office reported late last month that the space agency spent $97 million and 19 months on a propulsion module for the space station before determining the design was unacceptable. The project was canceled in March.
The space station, estimated by some to cost $94 billion before it's finished, is "the money pit of all government money pits," retired NASA engineer Don Nelson says in his new book, "NASA New Millennium Problems and Solutions."
"It is not being driven by a need for advancements in space or science," Nelson writes. "Its momentum is based on the gluttonous appetite of a government jobs program."
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