Overdue Space Module Finally Ready




KOROLYOV, Central Russia -- Russia threw a coming out party Monday for the long-delayed living module that has held up the International Space Station, but said it would not give up its Mir station despite acute money woes.


Monday's celebration for the new module's completion, held at the Energiya rocket corporation outside Moscow, was somewhat muted by Russia's worsening relations with the West over Yugoslavia and uncertainty about Mir's future.


Yury Koptev, head of the Russian Space Agency, said cooperation on the new station would continue despite Moscow's strong condemnation of the NATO war in Yugoslavia.


"We are counting on the trouble in Yugoslavia coming to an end soon and we'll be focused on projects that are really geared toward progress," he told a news conference.


In private, however, some officials at the U.S. space agency NASA worry that a NATO ground war in Yugoslavia could interrupt joint work on the station, which brings together Russia, the United States, Europe, Japan and Canada in a $60 billion project.


The $320 million living quarters segment, known as the service module, is running a year and a half behind schedule because of Russian financial difficulties. It is now likely to go up in November, with the first three-man Russian-American crew following in January 2000.


The United States has pressed Russia to retire its aging Mir station this year to focus its resources on the new station, which space officials say is the most complex technological endeavor ever undertaken.


Mir, which has been aloft for 13 years, was due to be retired in June but earlier this year the Russian government promised Energiya, the space corporation which owns the station, funding until August and said it could keep the station flying longer if private money was found.


On Monday, Energiya head Yury Semyonov said Mir would not be retired this year under any circumstances, an announcement likely to increase tensions with the United States.


"The Mir station will continue to fly in 1999 and in the beginning of 2000," he said. "If we don't find new investment we will take out loans, not to bring down Mir, but to continue its work, even if we have to stop manned work on the station for a temporary period."


Semyonov said efforts to find private sponsors were continuing. Koptev revealed for the first time that the cost of operating Mir had fallen to less than $100 million a year, down from about $200 million to $250 million before the August devaluation of the Russian ruble. Two Russians and one Frenchman are aboard the Mir station and are due to return in August.


Two modules of the spaces station are in orbit, but cannot support a crew until the living quarters is launched.


"We are ready and we could have already flown up already a year ago in May 1998," cosmonaut Sergei Krikalyov, who is scheduled to be on the first crew said. "But we are not sitting around doing nothing. We are continuing training and work on the new systems."


The living quarters module will be shipping to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in early May, where it needs to undergo about five months of tests before it will be ready to launch.