WASHINGTON. — Washington -- If ever there were a marriage made in heaven, it would be the unraveling space establishment of the ex-Soviet Union and its financially desperate counterpart in the United States. Heavy-duty collaboration would make sense for this troubled pair, and even more so for the taxpayers who finance their ambitions. But don't count on it. Space is not notable for spawning good political sense.
The impecunious Russians are desperate to deal and have even set up an office in suburban Washington to sell their formidable Energia rocket, biggest in the world. But the American response is hobbled by vestiges of Cold War thinking, combined with the technological conservatism of the government's big bureaucracies.
The Pentagon and the State Department don't want to sustain space power in the failed empire. And the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, preferring the familiarity of home-grown equipment and methods, is wary of serious dependence on the reeling survivors of the Communist system. Too bad. A great opportunity is needlessly slipping away and, given the specialized manpower needs and fragility of big space systems, may soon be gone.
The Soviet space program never landed men on the moon or demonstrated technological finesse, but it led the world in heavy lifting with brute-force rockets and long-endurance manned spacecraft. NASA, on the other hand, has painstakingly acquired sophistication in both manned and unmanned activities in space. But NASA has nothing like the big stable of highly reliable rockets developed by the Soviets.
For getting into space, NASA is pretty well confined to the shuttle, a skittish and extremely expensive vehicle that's scheduled for merely eight launches per year. In coming years, shuttle capacity will be heavily devoted to hauling construction materials for the space station. A new family of launchers is in the works, but won't be ready for another decade.
Meanwhile a budget analysis by the General Accounting Office warns that NASA is running up bills far in excess of the funding now projected for the next five years. Adding up the costs of the space station, a new family of rockets, and other programs, the GAO foresees a NASA shortfall of at least $15 billion. And it could be a great deal more than that if, as is widely suspected, NASA is understating the ultimate price of the space station, now officially estimated at $30 billion. That figure does not
include an essential item for the space station crew -- a space ''lifeboat,'' price $2 billion, for getting away in an emergency.
Under pressure from Congress, NASA, without evident enthusiasm, recently sent a technical team to Russia to discuss adaptation of the highly reliable Soviet Soyuz space craft as a rescue vehicle. Pressed by Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn., about other possibilities for collaboration, NASA officials were unmistakably cool. Arnold D. Aldrich, NASA's associate director for space-systems development, said, in effect, that it's worth looking, but emphasized that the Russian trip would be confined to Soyuz discussions.
Though the present NASA management is resistant to collaboration with the ex-Soviets, a different view exists at the technical working level of our space agency. Currently circulating on Capitol Hill is a bold proposal for enlisting the massive lifting power of Russia's Energia rocket for the construction of the space station.
By doing so, the proposal states, costs could be reduced by $15 billion and construction time by several years. Not mentioned is another advantage -- a new lease on life for Soviet rocket specialists, who might otherwise find rewarding work with Third World aspirants to big-league military power.
jTC For the next few months, NASA will be in a managerial limbo, with the present chief, Richard Truly, on the way out, and the nominee for his replacement, Daniel Goldin, a veteran TRW space executive, not likely to be cleared and confirmed until sometime in May. Regardless of who's in charge, the central fact of the American space program is that it's on a fast track to going broke, with virtually no chance of Congress finding the money to finance the programs now in progress.
Partnership with the old Soviet space establishment would not be devoid of headaches. But the advantages would far exceed the difficulties. The opportunity, however, is perishable.
Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.