Reagan turns salesman for Soviet spaceware at Senate hearing

March 26, 1992|By Douglas Birch and Tom Bowman | Douglas Birch and Tom Bowman,Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- Ronald Reagan, who once earned a living pitching detergent on television, tried his hand at selling the former Soviet Union's space technology to NASA yesterday.

But NASA Administrator Richard H. Truly said he would, in effect, continue to kick the tires on space vehicles and other hardware being sold or rented by what is now the Commonwealth of Independent States.

After appearing at a Senate subcommittee's hearing on NASA's budget, Mr. Truly said he still needs to talk to a team of space agency engineers who are studying whether to use the capsule-style Soyuz spacecraft as a crew rescue vehicle for a proposed U.S. space station.

"I think it's really premature until I hear what they [the engineers] say," Mr. Truly said.

Former President Reagan, in written testimony to a House committee, urged the Bush administration to buy advanced commonwealth space hardware and expertise.

"Ten years ago I would have enjoyed a good laugh if someone told me I would be addressing a congressional committee today to support technology trade with the evil empire known to the world then as the Soviet Union," he wrote.

The former president did not appear before the panel.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that questioned Mr. Truly, wrote President Bush last month and urged NASA to form the engineering team that recently inspected the Soyuz system. That team was scheduled to return to this country last night.

The now-dismantled Soviet Union was the world's most ambitious spacefaring nation, launching 59 rockets last year while the rest of the world launched only 29. Its hardware includes some of the world's most advanced space technology.

The former Soviet Union tried, with limited success, to sell some space services. But last year, hard times forced the commonwealth's new space agency to hold a kind of rummage sale.

"They declared they were open for business," Senator Mikulski said. "We need to explore it. I think it's worth pursuing."

The bargains are tempting.

Through some skillful dickering, NASA might buy the services of Soyuz for as little as $10 million, one Senate aide said. If NASA builds its own crew rescue vehicle, the cost could reach between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.

The U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative Organization is eager to buy the Commonwealth's Topaz 2 nuclear reactor for powering satellites and other spacecraft.

NASA has spent $400 million designing its own SP-100 compact space reactor, but production may be another 15 years and $1 billion away, Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists said.

"When you compare that to $10 million for a Topaz 2 reactor that's ready to go, it understandably makes certain people salivate," he said.

Some Bush administration officials are eager to buy, figuring on cutting costs and speeding the development of new hardware. And some in Congress fear that unless the United States makes a move, the Russians may turn to the Europeans, forming a team that would take the lead in space exploration.

But so far, strong resistance in the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies has blocked any purchases, critics say.

"Last October, there was a delegation that went over to inspect a range of former Soviet space technologies, and it found numerous items of interest," Mr. Aftergood said. "The bottleneck or the obstacle is not in NASA, but higher in the administration."

The most visible foe of the sales has been Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Atwood, second in command at the Pentagon.

Critics like Mr. Aftergood say some administration officials want to see the Soviet defense and aerospace industry collapse and never again threaten the United States. There is also some concern that buying Soviet wares would undercut U.S. aerospace firms.

But Senator Mikulski believes that savings could be funneled into ventures like a new space shuttle. Those projects could create jobs in the space industry, she said.

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