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Space station Friday, 20 October, 2000, 06:30 GMT 07:30 UK
Over budget and behind schedule
service module
The Russian service module in construcution
Officials at the US space agency Nasa proudly proclaimed 1998 "The year of the International Space Station", but their up-beat mood could not hide the catalogue of problems that had already hit the multi-billion dollar project.

Cost

When former US President Ronald Reagan first backed the idea of putting a space station into orbit in 1984, an $8bn price tag was calculated.

Nasa estimated it would cost $17.4bn to assemble the station and a further $13bn to operate between 2003 and 2012. Many observers have always thought those figures to be too low and have suggested the final total cost could reach $50bn or even higher.

Wary of the escalating costs, the US Congress has, on a number of occasions, attempted to kill off the ISS. So far, it has not succeeded, although a vote in the House of Representatives in 1993 went in favour of the station by just a single vote.

Some US politicians argued that it was a relic of the Cold War and was developed for political reasons to counter a perceived threat in space posed by the then Soviet Union. With the USSR gone, the space station idea should go as well, they reasoned.

They said that the space station was only made international to make it more difficult to cancel. And the critics claimed that one of the reasons the US Government went ahead with the project was to prevent talented Russian engineers from taking their undoubted skills to unfriendly countries.

Delays

The launch of the first part of the ISS jigsaw, the Russian-built core module Zarya, was put back several times.

The date for the launch of the crucial third element of the ISS, another Russian-built unit called Zvezda, which contains the crew quarters, was also delayed by over 18 months.

The Russians have been struggling to find the money to fulfil their commitments following swingeing budget cuts. They are also torn between a desire to be part of the international project and a need to pump up national prestige by continuing with the Mir space station. The latter has now been left to the private sector to fund.

In the face of it all, Nasa remains defiant. Spokesman Dwayne Brown said: "The International Space Station is being built, it will be completed, and while there will be delays, it will be successful."

Scientific goals

Leading US scientists have tried to pull the plug on the project by arguing that the huge amounts of money which are being ploughed into the ISS are stifling other areas of space research. Nasa denies those claims.

But many observers wonder whether the station will provide value for money.

Doubt has also been cast on the usefulness of the ISS on a scientific level.

Some scientists wonder if the research into protein crystals, which benefits from the near absence of gravity in space, could actually be carried out on Earth.

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