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Space Station Tensions

Keith Cowing

Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.– Russian Space Alliance. James Oberg. xii + 355 pp. McGraw-Hill, 2002. $27.95.

The only news we hear about the International Space Station (ISS) is bad news—or so it may seem. But despite the problems surrounding its birth and deployment, the ISS is a rather successful spacecraft. Indeed, the problems facing the ISS have been mostly human—not technical. Although the program represents the combined efforts of more than a dozen countries, it is dominated by the United States and Russia. How they do or do not get along sets the tone for its operations.

In Star-Crossed Orbits, James Oberg chronicles the rocky relationship between the space programs of the two countries, concentrating on the period from the inception of the ISS in the early 1990s up to the present. The interweaving of scientific, engineering, political and foreign-policy goals has made the ISS the most complex international scientific endeavor ever attempted—more complex than necessary, perhaps.

From Oberg's explanations of why the ISS was regularly delayed or redesigned, it emerges that technical decisions were often made for political reasons and vice versa. Each side had its own way of doing things, which it viewed as the right way. The reluctance to be fully open with each other, admit mistakes and adopt new ways of doing things led to many problems—problems that sometimes put human lives at risk.

Cosmonauts . . .Click to Enlarge Image

The Russians brought to the partnership their experience with eight previous space stations—including Mir, which they were extraordinarily reluctant to let go of. They saw the relationship with the United States as a way to keep their own space program alive while they grappled with the fiscal realities that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States, although it had put only a single space station into orbit in the 1970s, brought to the partnership the funding and cutting-edge aerospace technologies the ISS program needed. By stressing the foreign-policy advantages of Russian participation, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin cajoled the newly elected Clinton Administration into supporting the space station, then called Freedom, which had narrowly escaped being terminated by Congress only months before. Thus each country was using the other as a means to an end.

The Russians believed that the United States needed Russian expertise, and that this expertise was the only reason Congress kept the project alive. They thought that this gave them the upper hand as the relationship began. Perhaps as a result, information seemed to flow in one direction only, from the United States to Russia, which quickly led to U.S. frustration.

Distrust lingered for years. The Russians were chronically short of funds to keep their space program afloat, and the United States was called upon repeatedly to bail them out. After each infusion of cash, Russia would present the United States with another delay, and another request for dollars a few months later. U.S. politicians wanted to know where all the money was going. Oberg notes that a number of lavish dachas began to pop up just outside Star City (the cosmonaut village northeast of Moscow) around this time.

As a precursor to the deployment of the ISS, the United States and Russia agreed to a series of space shuttle visits to Mir, where American astronauts eventually spent long periods. Everything that could go wrong on a space station did so on Mir. A whole host of problems were caused by a mixture of obsolescence, poor communication, insufficient funding and lack of proper upkeep: computers failed, life-support systems broke down, equipment caught fire, and an unmanned Progress cargo vehicle crashed into the space station because the cosmonaut who was steering it by remote control was inadequately trained and using untried hardware. Although no one would willingly expose a crew to such risks, the experience of having endured these back-to-back calamities did eventually lead to relations that were more open and more susceptible to change and improvement. The steadiness of ISS operations today is due in part to lessons learned the hard way on Mir.

But much of that experience was acquired too late to affect the ISS. This is unfortunate, since it contains equipment nearly identical to that used on Mir. Oberg describes in detail the ways in which Russian hardware did not meet the operational and safety specifications of the ISS, standards that NASA regularly waived. As a result, astronauts risk permanent hearing damage from noisy Russian modules, which lack sufficient protection from micrometeoroids and orbital debris.

Both sides sought to keep as much detail as possible about the operation of Mir—and the tensions of joint tenancy—out of the public eye, portraying the program as safe, cooperative and meaningful, although as Oberg chronicles here, it was anything but that. As editor of NASA Watch during this period, I can vouch that this penchant for secrecy bordered on an obsession. Getting information out of NASA or its Russian counterpart was exceedingly difficult.

Nonetheless, Oberg has managed to obtain documents and information no one else could find. In portraying the dysfunctional marriage between the United States and Russia, he weaves a complex tapestry, drawing on his decades of experience working at NASA, previously unreleased memos and conversations with participants. He has also done extensive research into the technical operation of the machinery and systems of the ISS. The opinions he expresses are well substantiated, and his sleuthing and storytelling abilities combine to make this a gripping narrative.

The ISS story is saturated with emotion, national pride, political intrigue, public-relations spin and petty squabbles—all set against the awesome backdrop of humanity's first permanent outpost in space and the wonderful things we hope to do there. Oberg does a marvelous job of capturing it all.—Keith Cowing,, Reston, Virginia

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