Partners in Space


April 21, 1993|By RAMON E. LOPEZ

College Park. -- Jay Leno, with characteristic wit, jabbed at possible Russian participation in Space Station Freedom with a joke about $30 million toilets with no toilet paper.

Jokes aside, can the Russians help us? The former Soviet Union has more experience with long-duration orbital manned space flight than we do. Its ability to put payloads into orbit is outstanding, and other aspects of its space technology may be of interest to us.

NASA administrator Dan Goldin is redesigning the space station to radically reduce its cost. One avenue being investigated is the possible use of Russian hardware. NASA selected the East-West Space Science Center at the University of Maryland to coordinate the effort under the direction of Dr. Roald Sagdeev. A team of Russian engineers will arrive soon to share their expertise with the Space Station Redesign Team.

The kind of support being provided to this NASA effort is an appropriate role for the University of Maryland. Universities are a storehouse of expertise in many fields, and they can provide essential services to government and industry. I suspect that efforts such as this one being coordinated by the East-West Space Science Center are likely to become an increasing part of the University of Maryland mission.

Whether Russian hardware and experience can help reduce the cost of Space Station Freedom is not yet clear. The Russian delegation will be available to discuss a number of potential options with the redesign team. Regardless of the technical feasibility of integrating Russian hardware into the design of the space station, however, a major historical milestone has been crossed.

The space age is a child of the Cold War, born of confrontation. When the Soviet Union launched its first satellite in 1957 Americans were frightened: if it could launch a satellite into orbit, it could drop a nuclear bomb anywhere on earth. America was no longer safe behind its oceans. The race to the moon was really about who would gain the high ground of space. President Kennedy's Apollo and Minuteman programs were flip sides of the same coin.

With the collapse of the Soviet empire, many of the reasons for confrontation and competition in space have evaporated. This takes some getting used to. For example, U.S. law still classifies many types of space-flight hardware as munitions for which special import and export licenses are needed.

Surprisingly, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization has been quick to adjust. It purchased a couple of Russian Topaz II space nuclear reactors that may be used to power electric thrusters in a future test mission. The idea of buying Russian reactors to power a ''Star Wars'' mission would have been laughable just a few years ago. And so would cooperation with Russian space engineers on the crown jewel of the American manned space program, the space station.

We have much to gain from this kind of exchange. America and the Soviet Union operated under different sets of constraints as they tried to solve many of the same problems. Not surprisingly, the two countries came up with different sets of solutions and technologies. By combining areas of strength, we could be able to do many things better and cheaper. The space station may be one of those things.

Given the global nature of so many problems today, it is possible that collaboration in space may also help drive collaboration on earth. After all, the perspective is clearer from space. Pictures sent back by the Apollo spacecraft showed the earth as a fragile blue sphere suspended in inky infinity. The image provided a jolt to the collective human consciousness of greater long-term significance than the shock of the first Soviet Sputnik. For the first time we saw ourselves as passengers on Spaceship Earth. Space technology will play an increasingly critical role in resource management, pollution control and communications. We should not forget that by helping Russia market the things that it does best, such as space technology, we help insure that this great (and still nuclear-armed) nation continues to play a constructive role in the world.

It seems inevitable that the American and Russian space efforts will become more intertwined. We should look to the future of space exploration as a common expression of the human need to expand our horizons, with all nations contributing what they can. And if we look up into the night sky and see a space station that embodies that principle in its very construction, all the better.

Ramon E. Lopez is a research scientist in the Astronomy Department of the University of Maryland.

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