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Mir's woes raise doubts about U.S.-Russian cooperation

Mir June 25, 1997
Web posted at: 7:07 p.m. EDT (2307 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With crisis after crisis on the Russian space station Mir -- fires, failed equipment, a collision -- is it time to pull the plug on an ambitious program of U.S.-Russian space cooperation?

NASA administrators, as is their custom, are touting the bright side and saying no. But a key member of Congress emphasized on Wednesday his doubts about joining Russia in building an international space station -- or sending any more American astronauts up to Mir.

"Since February, there have been 10 major crises involving the Mir space station," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, chairman of the House Science Committee. "We have to make a determination if the science we are doing up there is worth the American lives we are risking."

NASA's recent missions to Mir with American astronauts are part of a tremendously complicated, hugely expensive plan to build an international space station, with the Russians as the principle partner -- a plan Sensenbrenner and other members of the Science Committee have criticized.

NASA pays about $400 million to the Russian space agency for each Mir mission. For its part, Russia is to supply the hardware and build the third vital section, or service module, of the space station. Russia already has completed the first section; U.S. contractors built the second.

Plans for a new station

But the Russians have fallen behind schedule -- a failure that has delayed the space station by at least eight months, to June 1998. And now the 11-year-old Mir, flying long past its designed lifetime, is proving less than reliable.

Sensenbrenner says he will insist that NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin conduct a "top-to-bottom" evaluation of the safety of Mir before sending up any more U.S. astronauts. He believes the Russians may be trying to keep the flights to Mir going to keep those $400 million payments coming.

But Frank Culbertson, NASA's manager for the joint program, says the recent problems on Mir will not affect U.S.-Russian cooperation in space.

"I don't see this as an impact to our cooperation. We will continue to cooperate and work together," he says. "We will learn from this, and there will be good lessons that come out of this on how to deal with future events should they occur."

When asked about calls in Congress to no longer permit astronauts aboard Mir, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said, "We remain committed to the program."

And space analyst John Logsdon says that whatever happens to the program of joint missions on Mir, those trips have served a useful purpose.

"If it ends now, we've learned a lot," Logsdon said. "If it continues for another few months, we've learned some more."

Correspondent Miles O'Brien contributed to this report.

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