2 Americans make pitch for Russian space sales Technology is tops, but buyers cautious

April 12, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

HERNDON, VA. -- Attention, shoppers!

Want to buy the most powerful booster rocket ever built, a 20-story behemoth that could toss five tractor-trailers into orbit? Have at least $15 million to spare for a round-trip ticket to Mir, Earth's only space station and zero-gravity resort?

Well, Jeff Manber and Chris Faranetta are the guys to see.

They are vice presidents and salesmen for Energia USA, a wholly-owned subsidiary of NPO Energia of Kaliningrad, the design arm of the former Soviet Union's ambitious space empire.

These two red-blooded young Americans have been hawking Russia's tried-and-true space hardware, services and expertise since shortly before Energia USA opened its four-person office here six weeks ago.

And, though they haven't sold anything yet, they are eager to deal.

"The collapse of the Soviet Union is contributing, accelerating, forcing connections to take place where it looked like none would take place," says Mr. Manber, 37, a Northwestern University graduate who formerly toiled on Wall Street and for the Department of Commerce on commercial space issues.

But don't come to Energia USA's sparsely-furnished offices on Innovation Avenue here, expecting to pick up a couple of spaceships for pocket change. And please don't use the phrase "fire-sale prices," as certain newspapers have.

"If you say to a Russian, we want this at 'fire-sale prices,' forget it. He won't deal with you," says Mr. Manber.

"Is $15 million for putting a cosmonaut into space a 'fire-sale price?' " demands an indignant Katya Syromyatnikova, the office's 21-year-old student intern from Moscow State University, who sits at an old drafting table translating technical documents.

Energia USA hopes to help the Russian space industry turn a profit by encouraging Western investment and by selling technology, data and expertise to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, aerospace and other companies.

Where will NPO Energia's profits eventually go? Good question, the salesmen say. The Russian state seems to own the company. But what about the Commonwealth of Independent States? And should the organization go private? These questions must still be sorted out.

Then there's the issue of patents. A lot of Soviet space technology was secret and never protected. Now NPO Energia is busy applying for patents and trying to figure out who should share in any royalties. Meanwhile, there is the danger foreign businesses will pilfer the technology.

While NPO Energia is famished for hard currency, the salesmen insist there are no plans to sell off huge assets such as the Mir.

"It's been frustrating for us," Mr. Manber says. "The [media] stories implied that the whole Mir space station is somehow for sale."

"It's available for lease, though," says Mr. Faranetta, 30, a space buff who started working with the Russians at his previous job with a non-profit research organization, the Space Studies Institute of Princeton, N.J.

Energia USA, created this year, has yet to sign a contract. But a couple of U.S. corporations have already struck small-scale commercial deals with the Russian space program.

Twice since 1989, Payload Systems Inc. of Massachusetts has used Mir to grow pharmaceutical crystals free of the Earth's distorting gravity.

Tourists can even reserve accommodations aboard the space station. But Club Mir doesn't come cheap. Germany paid $15 million to put one of its citizens in Mir for eight days in March, while a Japanese television network paid $12 million to send up a journalist in December 1990.

One of the chief goals of Energia USA is to persuade NASA to buy the Energia rocket, the largest and most powerful vehicle ever built by humans, capable of blasting enormous payloads into orbit.

NASA is looking at using a heavy-lift vehicle to help send aloft pieces of the planned Space Station Freedom, but designing and building one of its own could cost $15 billion, the salesmen estimate.

Instead, Mr. Faranetta suggests, the agency could buy the technology, tools and consulting services needed for a U.S. aerospace company to build its own version of the Energia. That, Mr. Manber said, could save NASA up to $9 billion.

But selling this project is a delicate task.

There are lingering suspicions in the Bush administration about dealing with the United States' former nemesis. NASA has seemed lukewarm about buying Russian spaceships and rockets. U.S. aerospace companies also seem concerned about encouraging a major new competitor and don't want to make the White House mad.

So far, NPO Energia officials say, they have a "yellow light" on space sales. They are looking for the light to switch to green at the June 16 summit between President Bush and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

For the Russian organization, though, space is not the final frontier. NPO Energia is already diversifying, in classic capitalist fashion.

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