Bargain hunters find Soviet deals out of this world Satellites, engines for rockets on sale

November 04, 1991|By William J. Broad | William J. Broad,New York Times News Service

The U.S. government, once indifferent to Soviet efforts to market space goods and services, is starting to show the zeal of a bargain hunter now that the offerings include items at fire-sale prices that no spies or reconnaissance satellites could have pried loose during the Cold War.

Items on the block include nuclear reactors, satellites, rocket engines, space stations, plutonium for compact power sources and a host of scientific reports on space testing and experiments.

The goods are seen as the cream of the Soviet industrial complex and in some cases are considered better than similar items in the West.

"Nobody ever contemplated that the Soviet military-industrial complex would end up in Chapter 11," said Russell Seitz, an associate at the Olin Center for Strategic Studies at Harvard University who monitors the Soviet activity.

"It's the yard sale at the end of history."

Few sales have been completed so far, and some government and military officials are resisting the idea.

But in an important change, federal experts are making secret trips to Moscow and beyond to sample the merchandise, and interest in the Defense Department and Congress is running high. The White House has begun a high-level review of the policy issues surrounding any possible purchases.

"There is clearly a rising level of interest and activity," said Dr. Richard L. Verga, a Pentagon official in charge of developing advanced technologies for the "star wars" anti-missile research program.

"As the result of decades of investment, the Soviets have all kinds of equipment and technologies that might be of interest to us," he said.

Mr. Verga said the Soviet goods apparently were being quietly marketed to many countries. "When you're in the hotel bar over there, the language at the next table is German, and at the next one over is Japanese," he said.

Mr. Seitz said a major problem was simply sorting through all the offerings, which in recent months have increased sharply. For the Soviets, any sales would result in an influx of hard currency and the satisfaction of having their technical work admired and acquired.

For the United States, the purchases would be a technical bonanza and would possibly help stabilize a rival superpower now on the brink of chaos.

The Soviet space enterprise is the world's largest and most NTC active, forged in the Cold War and surrounded by layers of secrecy.

L Pentagon teams have made repeated trips to the Soviet Union.

Mr. Verga said he last went there in July and saw sprawling reactor test installations, parts of which are up for sale, that could not be duplicated in the West for $1 billion.

The Soviet Union has lagged in many aspects of the world's technology revolution, especially those relating to computers and electronic miniaturization. But it is ahead in others.

For instance, its scientists have mastered the manufacture of high-strength, high-temperature alloys that are virtually unknown in the West. These metals can be important in the design of advanced rocket engines and nuclear reactors, which generate tremendous heat.

The U.S. Air Force, tempted by such wares, has quietly made repeated inquiries about buying an advanced Soviet rocket engine known as the RD-170, said to be the most powerful liquid-fuel rocket engine in the world.

The Soviets are eager to sell. An industry expert privy to the East-West negotiations said a major problem was a conflict in the U.S. military over whether it was wise to aid a former adversary by making such a purchase.

"It's schizophrenic," said the expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Middle management will talk to the Soviets, who get all excited. But when it goes to the next step, upper management is not interested, leaving the Soviets up in the air.

"That's also a problem on the Soviet side. Middle management tries to cut a deal. But upper management says, 'Hey, we don't know anything about this.' Part of the problem on both sides is lack of clear direction from the top."

Nonetheless, U.S. interest is growing. A six-member team, led by Leonard Caveny, deputy director of innovative science and technology at the "star wars" program, recently returned from a Soviet visit.

The team went to the Institute of Thermal Processes, a military research and development center just outside Moscow, where they tested a very small but advanced space engine that uses magnetic fields instead of burning chemical fuels to move a spacecraft.

Such a small engine could have many uses in the U.S. space program for propelling satellites and payloads that have already been boosted into orbit.

The Soviets are offering the device for $500,000 to $1 million. "It's very moderately priced," Mr. Caveny told Space News, an industry publication.

Mr. Verga added that the engine was small enough to fit into the palm of a hand.

"This kind of engine has been kicking around on paper in this country for 30 years, but never in space," he said. "The Soviets are actually flying these things."

So, too, the Air Force is said to be interested in acquiring some secret Soviet data on the atmospheric effects of nuclear blasts, which has recently been put on the block.

"They're selling everything," said an expert familiar with the negotiations.

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