Spaceflight Now: Space Station

Stakes sky high for this week's Zvezda launch

Posted: July 10, 2000

The stakes are literally sky high: Nothing less than the future of the international space station. That's what many believe is riding on Wednesday's launch of a long-delayed Russian command module called Zvezda.

  Zvezda orbits Earth
The Zvezda service module in this artist's impression. But what are NASA's plans if it doesn't reach orbit? Photo: NASA

The Zvezda module will serve as the station's central command center, providing crew quarters, power distribution, data management and propulsion during the initial years of assembly.

Scheduled for launch early Wednesday atop a Russian heavy-lift Proton rocket, Zvezda is expected to dock with the international space station July 26. If the automatic docking sequence fails for any reason, two cosmonauts will be standing by for launch to Zvezda aboard a Soyuz rocket to carry out a manual linkup.

But if the module is lost in a launch mishap or because of a catastrophic problem in orbit, completion of the space station would be delayed by at least three years, according to internal NASA planning documents.

And that does not take into account the inevitable political fallout in a presidential election year.

"My assumption is that NASA would fiddle around with contingency plans until a new president is in place and at that point, there would be an agonizing reappraisal of where we're going with the space station," said John Pike, a space policy analyst with the Federation of American Scientists.

"In the interim, I would assume Congress would spend the rest of the year doing a rain dance about how we shouldn't be working with the Russians on the international space station. ... They would lay the political foundation to predispose the next president to kick the Russians off the station."

The Clinton Administration required NASA to invite the Russians to participate in the project in 1993 as a foreign policy objective, a way to keep Russian rocket scientists employed in a peaceful pursuit in the wake of the Cold War.

For NASA, it's a sort of Catch-22: Without the Russians, it's not clear the station could maintain its current level of congressional support.

"For the last eight years or so, the political center of gravity has been that it was only the cooperation with the Russians that saved it," Pike said of past opposition to the space station. "The Russians got brought in and ... they've had more than enough votes.

"But if you were to kick the Russians off," Pike said, "the project reverts to being a science project. The thing can't be sold as a science project politically."

Politics aside, the loss of Zvezda would force NASA to launch a shuttle mission as soon as possible to upgrade the Russian-built NASA-financed control module called Zarya to increase its orbital lifetime. The shuttle crew also would boost the station to a higher, more stable altitude.

  Interim Control Module
The Interim Control Module seen in computer graphic form. Photo: NRL.

NASA's $100 million interim control module, an unmanned propulsion system being built by the Naval Research Laboratory, would be launched next spring, according to the agency's contingency plan, probably in the April 2001 timeframe.

All spacecraft in low-Earth orbit are subjected to the effects of friction with atoms and molecules in the extreme upper atmosphere, which acts to lower the vehicle's altitude. The space station must be periodically reboosted to maintain a stable orbit.

Without Zvezda, the station would have to rely on the unproven interim control module. The ICM, attached to the aft docking port of the Zarya module, is designed to provide periodic reboosts for up to three years.

Once the ICM is in place, NASA likely would continue station assembly through the next five shuttle missions while accelerating development of life support systems and a more capable propulsion module to replace the ICM.

Here is the breakdown for near-term flights in the event Zvezda is lost for any reason:

  • Flight STS-106: Equip Zarya with upgraded systems to extend orbital lifetime; launch date TBD
  • ICM:Provide station reboost capability; launch date: April 2001
  • STS-92/ISS 3A: Z1 truss; control moment gyroscopes; KU-band communications system; pressurized mating adapter
  • STS-97/ISS 4A: P6 solar array truss; radiators
  • STS-98/ISS 5A: U.S. laboratory module, Destiny
  • STS-102/ISS 5A.1: Lab outfitting; first multi-purpose logistics module
  • STS-100/ISS 6A: Second MPLM; UHF antennas; station robot arm
  • The station would remain in this configuration until a U.S.-built propulsion module could be built and launched to provide extended reboost capability. The station could not support full-time crews until NASA could completed development of its own life support systems.

    Live coverage
    Spaceflight Now will provide a running commentary during the countdown and launch of Zvezda in our Mission Status Center. We will also offer a live QuickTime streaming video broadcast.

    Flight data file
    Vehicle: Proton
    Payload: Zvezda
    Launch date: July 12, 2000
    Launch time: 0456 GMT (12:56 a.m. EDT)
    Launch site: Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan

    Pre-launch briefing
    Launch preview - The international space station's future riding on Zvezda.

    Marvel of complexity - Overview of the Russian-made Zvezda service module.

    A rocky road to launch - Zvezda and the international space station have been delayed many times.

    Proton vehicle data - Overview of the Russian rocket that will launch Zvezda into space.

    Launch timeline - Chart with times and descriptions of events to occur during the launch.

    Two weeks to docking - Description of events leading up to Zvezda's docking to station.

    Shuttle to outfit station - A look ahead to September's mission of space shuttle Atlantis.

    Video vault
    NASA animation shows the Zvezda module launching into space, deploying antennas and solar arrays and conducting orbit raising maneuvers.
      PLAY (593k, 1min 05sec QuickTime file)
    The Zvezda service module joins the infant International Space Station as seen in NASA animation of the docking with Zarya.
      PLAY (670k, 1min 12sec QuickTime file)
    One of Zvezda's power-generating solar arrays is unfurled in a factory test as the module is constructed.
      PLAY (265k, 29sec QuickTime file)
    Take a look around inside the Zvezda service module that will be initial crew living quarters aboard the International Space Station.
      PLAY (406k, 45sec QuickTime file)
    Russian technicians move the Proton rocket's nose cone around Zvezda in the factory to ensure to two will fit together properly.
      PLAY (185k, 20sec QuickTime file)
    Download QuickTime 4 software to view this file.