Soviet Space for Sale

October 11, 1991

The Soviets have offered to sell their space hardware and hard-won experience, and many Westerners are interested. Caution is urged by some in the Defense Department, who see American tax dollars and capitalist profits helping to keep afloat a Soviet military-industrial complex that still could menace the U.S. Others, even inside the defense establishment, see Soviet space jewels they'd like to buy, such as the automatic rendezvous and docking system the Soviets use to resupply the Mir space station, launchers and the ground-return vehicle that brings cosmonauts back from orbit.

Joseph Wetch, head of California-based Space Power Inc.supplied an eloquent answer to the doubters. Speaking of Soviet Mars plans and the equipment already developed, he asked, "Why should we reinvent the wheel to go to Mars and duplicate their work and reconstitute their facilities at high labor rates? [Working with them] makes common sense and they are willing to work with us," he told the industry journal Space News.

Mr. Wetch was talking about nuclear-thermal rockets, favored by U.S. specialists for deep interplanetary missions. His logic applies to more than just a proposed Mars mission. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has faced increasing skepticism in the Congress and has had to scale back budget projections for the rest of this decade. European space officials also have had trouble justifying to constituent governments the expenditures necessary to accelerate their Hermes space shuttle program, designed to connect to the U.S.-built Freedom space station.

Meanwhile, the Mir station sweeps along, passing milestone after milestone in orbit. Recently, cosmonauts made six spacewalks to erect a metal tower outside the station, tying their own record for extra-vehicular activity. The outside tower will hold attitude-control rockets. Later, cosmonauts will relocate solar panels from one module to another.

U.S. officials are beginning to take seriously the Soviet proposals, and they should. A Soviet rocket recently carried a NASA ozone-mapping instrument aloft inside a weather satellite, and the Italians are working on a deal to market communications services via Soviet orbiters once used for the military. Defense worries can be assuaged by full disclosure of Soviet plans, rockets and infrastructure, and by stationing U.S. civilian personnel at the launch sites and plants. It will take some re-thinking and redesign to integrate U.S. and Soviet space hardware, equipment and launch services, but these are surmountable problems. Trade, providing hard currency for a strapped Soviet economy, is far preferable to the arms race that produced this now-surplus space program.

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