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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Asks Station Be Put in New Orbit

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- Russia has sent a surprise request to NASA asking for the International Space Station to be inserted into a different orbit than the one previously agreed.

Last week, Russian space officials broached NASA about the possibility of launching the first station component 10 hours later than planned on Nov. 20. The request, coming just 2 1/2 weeks before the Russian launch, took U.S. space officials by surprise.

Fueling the Zarya module was to begin Saturday in preparation for the launch, Itar-Tass reported.

It will take five days to fuel the Zarya cargo module with 4.5 metric tons of a highly toxic fuel before its launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, the news agency said.

Next week, space workers will link the module with a Proton booster rocket and place it on the launching pad at the cosmodrome, Itar-Tass said.

NASA is scheduled to launch a module of its own to link up with the Zarya in December. The first crews are not expected on the space station until the latter part of 1999 or early in the year 2000.

Space shuttle Endeavour is due to lift off in the predawn hours of Dec. 3 with the second station part. If the Russians change their launch time, the shuttle liftoff would have to shift accordingly.

If approved, such a change in plans would put the International Space Station on a path closer to Mir. Some observers, including Houston aerospace consultant James Oberg, see this as an attempt by the Russians to keep their 12-year-old Mir station in orbit as long as possible.

In addition, having Mir and the International Space Station in orbital proximity would allow the Russians to move equipment between the two outposts.

Earlier this year, Russian officials assured NASA they would bring down Mir next summer and focus all of their money and energy on the International Space Station. But some within the Russian Space Agency are reluctant to send Mir on a fiery plunge through the atmosphere into the Pacific Ocean.

Shuttle manager Tommy Holloway said Saturday that top-level NASA managers are "very carefully reviewing with the Russians the pros and cons of their proposal."

"It would be a significant amount of work involved in redoing the plans, doing the thermal analyses, adapting to a new timeline and ensuring that all the data was in place," he acknowledged. He did not say whether any of this might result in a launch delay.

Holloway said a decision would be made by the end of this week.

The United States paid $200 million for the Zarya power and propulsion tug, which was built by Russia based on modules of older Soviet space stations. The second Russian component, the so-called service module, is still incomplete and already has delayed station assembly by a full year.

The repeated postponements have forced a U.S. financial bailout to make sure the service module is ready for a mid-1999 launch. The United States already had paid Russia about $1.2 billion to keep the project on schedule, but Russia has repeatedly failed to meet deadlines. The project is already a year behind schedule and will take about four or five years to complete.

Oberg called the Russian request disturbing and bizarre. He led the team that selected the planned orbital path of the International Space Station; he quit his job at Johnson Space Center a year ago.

"This last-minute raising of innocuous-looking `modifications' seems to be an old Russian negotiating tactic and once again it's caught the U.S. side off guard," said Oberg.

"This is not a technical question," he added. "It goes to the heart of the U.S.-Russia space partnership and the stability of its future."