Working with Russians in Space

April 12, 1992

Space is a harsh environment. Now, with the Cold War ended and the world economy fragile, harsh budget realities are forcing tough decisions on space planners, in Europe and the former Soviet Union as well as the United States.

The European Space Agency, which had spent $1 billion on an independent space station and its own Hermes shuttle, now is backing off. Instead of completing the 14-year, $50-billion program, the Europeans want to commit only to technology demonstrations, redirecting a smaller re-entry vehicle toward new missions and focusing on international cooperation.

The Russians say they are mothballing their own space shuttle and want to join the European Space Agency. Even without a formal proposal, Europe's space officials are letting contracts for joint ventures with the Russians. Eager to use Russia's huge launch fleet, the Europeans still share American fears about the effect of a too-rapid boost of cheap launch services into a tight satellite market. How to prevent destruction of Western companies with tenuous positions in an already competitive launch market has yet to be worked out.

But the merger will happen. U.S. defense officials have cautioned against helping the Russians through space trade, saying they'd rather see the former Soviet military-industrial complex wither, but that is wishful thinking. Not only are the Europeans already working on similar initiatives, but the United States' own long-term interests are not served by letting Russian space experts starve in the streets, their once-mighty technology centers beggared. That way lies wholesale export of space skills to countries in whose hands Americans would not like to see ballistic missiles. Moreover, complete chaos in the former Soviet Union harbors ugly possibilities for a re-emergence of dictatorship.

It is thus encouraging that the Pentagon finally dropped its opposition to purchasing Russian satellite nuclear-power systems and plutonium to strengthen U.S. space programs. But continued insistence that launching almost any Western satellite Russian vehicles compromises U.S. security is counter-productive. The Europeans will make such launches, and probably so will some of America's long-standing Asian allies; and there are plenty of U.S. satellites whose liftoff from Russian pads would pose little threat.

Now is the time for thoughtful re-examination of U.S. space needs versus budgetary capabilities. The Europeans and Russians have clearly begun their own reevaluation. With the Cold War over, getting cold feet will not help American interests.

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