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Image: Zarya launch
The first piece of the international space station is launched from Kazakhstan on Nov. 20, 1998. Months after the launch, Russian military officers said the mission came close to failure.
By NBC News space analyst
NBC News

Five years ago, when the very first section of the international space station reached orbit, the entire program could have teetered on the edge of failure. It was Nov. 20, 1998, and the project was saved only through the last-minute intervention of some unsung Russian space experts, who never told NASA how close they had come to disaster. Or at least that’s the story told at the Russian space command center at Krasnoznamensk, southwest of Moscow, where military personnel do the actual communications with all 120 active Russian spacecraft.

From Kraznoznamensk, data are transmitted to the better-known Mission Control Center in the northern Moscow suburb of Korolyov, where on Nov. 20, 1998, foreign dignitaries and journalists were celebrating — perhaps prematurely — the successful launch.

The module was the FGB, Russian for “Functional Cargo Block,” code-named “Zarya.” Based on a design flown before (including one spectacular Russian space station failure in May 1987 that the Russians had not told NASA about), the hardware was part of the military side of the Russian program and had special high-security radio links with Earth.

How Russians saved the day
The story of the triumph of the ground controllers was told 20 months after the fact, on Aug. 1, 2000, on Moscow’s ORT-1 television channel. It was expanded upon in a long story days later in the Moscow daily newspaper Noviye Izvestia. Journalist Oleg Getmanenko related an interview with Lt.-Gen. Anatoly Zapadinsky, about how a subordinate, Lt.-Col. Nazarov, “saved the international space program” on launch day.

The FGB had been launched successfully, and its solar panels unfolded properly. But then, in Zapadinsky’s account, “the space satellite did not respond to inquiries from Earth.” He explained why: “It turned out that before its launch it was loaded with incorrect ‘instructions’ for decoding a signal from the control center.”

Image: Zarya in orbit
This picture of the Functional Cargo Block, also known as the FGB or Zarya module, was snapped from the space shuttle Endeavour in 1998.
Without the signal, the module would have been lost. In the account on television, it was claimed that “without adjusting its orbit, the module would begin to lose altitude and burn up in the atmosphere.”

“In the course of three orbits, Nazarov did the impossible,” the newspaper article continued. “He fixed up the necessary code manually, and the obstinate unit began to listen to its commands.” The program was saved, and Nazarov was rewarded by receiving several years of back pay that had been in arrears.

The Russians apparently kept the news from their NASA partners. There was nothing NASA could have done anyway, since even though the Americans were officially the “owners” of the FGB, the Russians had refused to turn over the command codes for reasons of military secrecy.

Senior NASA press official Rob Navias, who had been at the Korolyov facility for the launch, told MSNBC.com that NASA never heard of any such crisis. As far as NASA knew, “the vehicle and the module worked like a charm.”

‘Highly overdramatized' tale
While acknowledging there really had been such a problem, Russian space journalist Igor Lissov downplayed its seriousness in a recent e-mail exchange. He called the Krasnoznamensk version “highly overdramatized.”

"[Those] guys like to tell such stories to advertise themselves, and the TV crews take these at face value,” he said.

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Lissov explained that his magazine Novosti Kosmonavtiki (“Space News”) reported the incident in its January 1999 issue. “The authors, of whom one was in the loop in fact on that day, stated that in the second orbit pass they have got troubles with contacting the [spacecraft]” But they then used existing backup procedures, along with some real-time emergency replanning.

“The details of Nazarov’s prompt and sound analysis are most probably correct, too,” he added.

But Lissov pooh-poohs any claim that the spacecraft was in imminent danger. “The first orbit reboost has been scheduled at orbit 17. That is more than 24 hours from launch,” he told MSNBC.com. “There was plenty of time to react on Day 2, of course.”

Had the problem persisted, Russia would have had to tell its American partners. The FGB would have fallen out of orbit in a week or two.

In the ensuing five years, NASA officials tell MSNBC.com, much closer communication has been established between Moscow and Houston, and such information gaps are much less likely. Through three-month duty tours, eight NASA flight controllers are always on duty at the Korolyov control center, and 10 Russians are in Houston, space station official Michael Suffredini said at a status briefing on Wednesday. Additional NASA personnel are involved with astronaut training at the Star City cosmonaut center, and half a dozen Russians are also assigned to Houston to assist in NASA training.

The FGB’s critical role on the station has long passed, and its command system was shut down when newer control modules took over. It now serves as a pantry and fuel depot, and as the “halfway house” between the all-Russian segments of the station, and the wholly NASA-built segment.

James Oberg, space analyst for NBC News, spent 22 years at the Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He is the author of “Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.-Russian Space Alliance.”

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