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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Rockets Doubtful for Orbiter

WASHINGTON -- Faced with continued doubts about Russia's ability to deliver vital hardware for the International Space Station, NASA is enhancing its space shuttles to allow them to more readily boost the station in orbit.

The agency has been counting on unmanned Russian rockets to do periodic reboosting of the station.

NASA also has asked industry to draft plans for a U.S.-built propulsion module for possible reboost duties.

The new contingency steps are in addition to NASA's previous decision to develop a backup for the Russian service module, initial living quarters for the space station. That long-delayed module is targeted for launch next April. It would follow launch of a Russian-built control module in November -- the first piece of the station to be put aloft -- and a U.S.-built connecting passageway in December.

Administration officials made clear at a hearing of the House of Representatives science committee Wednesday that the Russian situation remains worrisome and could require more outlays of U.S. money in the future to make up for Russian nonperformance.

"We're not fooling ourselves, nor are we fooling you," Jacob Lew, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told the panel. "It's a very serious situation." But he said it is too soon to say whether U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration will have to seek substantially more money for the space station in NASA's fiscal year 2000 budget request, which will be developed during the fall. Lew said if more money is needed, the White House prefers to look for funds within NASA's space shuttle budget.

NASA administrator Daniel Goldin told the panel in prepared remarks that the Russian funding outlook remains unsettled. He said that of $340 million needed for Russian space station contributions during the current year, only $160 million has been budgeted by the cash-strapped central government. And only $20 million actually has been allocated to the Russian Space Agency so far. But Goldin said final work on the troubled service module continues, and NASA officials are counting on its availability.

At the same time, Goldin warned that "the timely completion of this important international project is at risk should the shortage of Russian funding continue." Assembly of the huge space structure currently is scheduled for completion in 2004 at a cost of about $34 billion for the United States.

In the measures discussed Wednesday, NASA said it will enhance the ability of space shuttles to keep the station in its proper orbit. When docked, shuttles can boost the station higher using thruster rockets. NASA will modify the shuttle to allow exchange of thruster fuel between the forward and aft propellant tanks, providing more flexibility for boost maneuvers. A NASA official said the cost of the fleet modifications could be as much as $90 million, with the money reallocated from existing funds.

NASA has asked Boeing, the prime contractor for the space station, to provide a formal cost estimate by the end of the month for a new U.S.-built propulsion module to stabilize and reboost the station should Russia be unable to provide Progress rockets as planned. Production of the Russian rockets virtually has ceased due to nondelivery of parts, Goldin said.

James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Republican representative from Wisconsin who chairs the science committee and a persistent critic of the Russian government's handling of the station program, urged the White House to end its reliance on Russian hardware for key station tasks and avoid "another year of ad hoc budget shuffles."