From Vancouver to Outer Space

April 13, 1993

In a fascinating follow-up to the Clinton-Yeltsin summit, the White House has ordered NASA to work with Russian scientists in an effort to save the controversial Space Station Freedom from death by cost-overrun.

The ambitious project, carrying a price tag in the $30 billion to $40 billion range, plus $100 billion in operating expenses over 30 years, is now going through a painful downsizing redesign. Whether the effort will succeed may, indeed, require tapping into Russia's vaunted space technology.

The new inquiry marks an effort by President Clinton to preserve the space station, which he supported in his campaign, so long as it can be made digestible in this budget-crunch era. NASA scientists are trying to come up with palatable options by June. They soon will be exchanging ideas with a group of Russian experts at the University of Maryland's East-West Space Science Center, a research unit headed by Dr. Roald Z. Sagdeev, former head of the Soviet space science program.

If Russian entrepreneurs had their way, the United States would buy or lease the Mir II space station they now are building, attach American, European and Japanese laboratory modules to it and fly the heavens in the most internationally oriented space mission ever conceived.

The U.S. may yet buy the concept of just one space station for humanity. But Washington is cautious because of instability in Russia, reservations by the Japanese and Europeans, a desire within in the U.S. space community to develop its own main docking module and concern about the compatibility of U.S. and Russian components.

Despite these caveats, the administration seems open to using Russian hardware and expertise to reduce NASA's budget. This is important to Congress and essential to President Clinton's deficit-cutting goals. Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, head of the space appropriations subcommittee, has warned if the current redesign is not convincing it might be better to cancel the whole space station project rather than keep it on life-support.

For Russia, space technology is one of its few potential exports. Its Mir I space station has been aloft since 1986 and continuously occupied since 1989. It has pioneered where the U.S. has lagged. With Russia's nuclear power industry in near red-alert safety condition, its nuclear weapons arsenals being dismantled, its consumer exports non-existent and its oil and gas resources far from reaching their potential, space technology could be a key hard-money earner for Moscow. If a mutually beneficial program could be developed, this would be one of the happier developments to unfold after the Vancouver summit.

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