Russia, U.S. May Man Space Station This Year

After years of delays on the International Space Station, the United States and Russia are working on a surprise plan to launch the first crew in October, three months earlier than planned, officials said Thursday.

The unannounced change, if approved at a meeting next month, would represent a major publicity coup for the $60 billion station, which has been marred by repeated Russian delays in building the living quarters.

"The idea here is that the earlier you can begin the manned program in the module the better," said Alexander Botvinko, deputy head of the Russian Space Agency's manned space division. "The station would begin to exist from the standpoint of its scientific work."

Russia's dire financial problems have set back its completion of the vital living quarters by a year and a half, but officials now say it will be ready for shipment to the launch site at Baikonur in Kazakhstan early next month.

It will then need about 4 1/2 months of testing before an expected launch in September, when it will link up with two unmanned space station modules already in orbit.

The three-man, Russian-American crew was scheduled to go up in January, but the latest idea is to launch two men a few weeks after the living quarters module goes into orbit. The third man would come up by a U.S. space shuttle soon after.

"We first proposed the idea and now the Americans are even more enthusiastic than we are," said Leonid Gorshkov, head of space station design at the Energiya rocket corporation, which is now finishing work on the living quarters module.

Mike Baker, Moscow-based deputy head of the United States' Johnson Space Center, said he believed the October launch would be approved, though it was now only under discussion.

He said the early launch idea rose from contingency plans to send up astronauts if the living quarters do not properly attach to the rest of the station automatically.

"So some of the thinking is that perhaps we could just go ahead and launch the crew at that time as well even if there isn't a contingency," Baker said.

"The sooner we can get the crew on board the better off we are if there are any failures so the crew can intervene and perform maintenance," he said.

The October launch plan could win approval in early April when top U.S. space officials travel to Moscow for an overall review of the new space station program. Possible obstacles include more Russian financing woes or unexpected technical difficulties, officials said.

The new station brings together the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan in what has been described as the most ambitious technological project undertaken.