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Saving Mir: At what cost to new space station?

Russians decree that they will keep aging orbital outpost raisesquestions in US abouttheir ability to fund international project.

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When Russia agreed to abandon the Mir space station last June to focus its meager space budget on the International Space Station (ISS), American officials breathed a sigh of relief. The cash-strapped country, they argued, didn't have the money to support both projects.

Now, they are holding their breath again following Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's decree Friday to keep Mir aloft three more years.

Construction of the ISS, begun in December, is already a year behind schedule because of Russian delays in delivering key components. The new decree could mean further delays and higher costs for the $60 billion project.

For their part, officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) say they are withholding judgment until early this week, when they hope to see the full text of the decree. But some in the space community believe that, no matter what the decree says, Russia can't afford two major space projects at once.

According to reports from Russia, the decree noted that within three months, Russian and foreign contractors and investors will have developed a program to keep Mir on orbit without touching money allocated to the ISS. "We were told that the decree required that Mir's extension be financed with nongovernment funds, that there be enough money to cover deorbiting Mir, and that Mir's extension must have no impact on ISS," says Dwayne Brown, a NASA spokesman in Washington.

Even with outside funding, however, Mir would continue to compete with the ISS for Russian resources, says James Oberg, a Houston-based aerospace engineer and an authority on the Russian space program. Neither the rocketmakers nor their suppliers have the capacity to build vehicles needed to support both programs, he says. Thus, even if private funding could be found, retaining Mir could further delay ISS, he adds.

For Russia, losing Mir would erase "the last symbol of a world-class space program," he says. Yet with last fall's launch and mating of the first two ISS modules and the need to keep the program moving, "the clock is ticking. NASA jumped from the plane and now is negotiating with the parachute salesman."

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