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Focus Switches to NASA After Russian Launch 

By Brad Liston

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - U.S. space officials say that despite 
Sunday's successful launch of an unmanned Russian supply ship, the hardest 
part of assembling the $60 billion International Space Station still lies 
ahead.

Since 1998, when the first elements of the orbiting outpost were launched, 
the U.S. has been able to point an accusing finger at the Russians over 
delays, but now attention will turn to NASA and its own ability to launch on 
time.

Both in Congress and in NASA itself, the cash-strapped Russian Space Agency 
has been a favorite whipping boy when anyone asked why NASA had a space 
station that no one could live on.

Critics even urged NASA to cut the Russians, who were years behind schedule 
on a space-station service module, out of the 16-nation partnership, despite 
their decades of experience operating space stations.

But that module, Zvezda, was finally launched last month, and with Sunday's 
launch of the Progress supply ship, which will dock and wait for astronauts 
to unload it next month, the Russians have caught up on their commitments.

The focus now shifts to Florida's Kennedy Space Center, where about 90 
percent of the station's U.S. components are waiting to be launched.

``We're beginning a year during which we should have about 15 launches, which 
is the most intense period of flight operations that human spaceflight has 
ever undertaken,'' Jim Van Laak, one of NASA's top mission managers, told 
reporters last week.

``We're all very excited about that but I think we're awed by the challenge 
it represents.''

With good reason. NASA has flown just two shuttle missions in the first seven 
months of this year. Last year there were four. And NASA has not launched a 
shuttle on time since John Glenn's celebrated flight in 1998.

NASA has nine shuttle missions on its calendar for the next 12 months. The 
space agency has not launched that many shuttles since 1985, in the era 
before the Challenger disaster.

All but one of those shuttle launches are dedicated to the tricky business of 
space-station construction. The remainder of the 15 flights are Russian.

``I think it would be naive to assume we could get through 15 flights in a 
row without some unforeseen problem cropping up,'' said Flight Director Phil 
Engelauf.

``There are some added complexities in the sense that we have two programs, 
between the shuttle and the station, we have international partners and there 
are more variables. Things are harder to control.''

Those 15 flights represent a key milestone for the station, but not its 
completion. The station will be slightly larger than Russia's aging Mir, with 
significantly more power and better computers, and will have about as much 
living space as a modest three-bedroom home.

But its science capabilities will be limited until it nears completion, now 
scheduled for 2005.

NASA will try to use each of its shuttle missions to get as far ahead of 
schedule as possible, making each subsequent launch that much less critical.

The next flight, scheduled for September 8, will have more tasks assigned to 
the astronaut crew than they could reasonably be expected to accomplish in an 
11-day mission. But the astronauts will be ready in case they can conserve 
enough fuel to eke out a 12th flight day.

Van Laak noted the station had already reached one crucial milestone. With 
the Zvezda in place, the station can carry enough fuel to keep itself in 
orbit despite delays.

``We may have slow downs, we may have delays, we may even, in some cases, 
have damage to some hardware,'' Van Laak said. ''But the safety of the core 
vehicle has been protected.'' 
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