The Price of Rivalry in Space

July 19, 1994|By YURI KARASH

WASHINGTON. — Washington.-- Last month Congress approved the continuation of the U.S.-Russian cooperation for the design and building of the international space station. This cooperation has two major benefits: It greatly enhances the efficiency of the space station and saves the American taxpayer $1.2 billion.

The modules of the space station are expected to be launched from the Russian cosmodrome Baikonur at an orbital inclination of 51.6 degrees. This will enable the station to cover a greater part of the earth's surface than would be possible if launched from the Kennedy Space Center, as originally planned, at the orbital inclination of 26.5 degrees. And since Russia will create a core module for the station for only $800 million -- it would have cost $2 billion in the United States -- the American taxpayer will get much more for less money.

If the benefits of unifying the American and Russian space efforts are so obvious, why did the two countries not take advantage of them almost 30 years ago when there was a unique opportunity to go to the moon together? Can we learn from this unsuccessful experience to avoid a similar failure in the future?

In his electoral campaign John F. Kennedy claimed that Soviet space success challenged the scientific and technological leadership of the United States. However, he did not want to engage in a race he might not win. The joint realization of a space project, like the moon expedition, would glorify the two countries equally.

Furthermore, Kennedy was sensitive to Eisenhower's warning about the possible influence on governmental affairs of a ''military-industrial complex'' and a ''scientific-technological elite'' and was concerned about strengthening them by engaging in the grand space project.

But ultimately, Kennedy, as opposed to Eisenhower, had a new vision for Soviet-American relations. In his electoral campaign Kennedy emphasized the need to develop ''areas of common interest'' with the U.S.S.R. Space was supposed to become one of these areas.

Consequently, Kennedy made a direct proposal to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the Soviet-American summit meeting in Vienna in June 1961 ''to go to the moon together.'' Khrushchev refused, demanding first the disarmament and liquidation of U.S. military bases along the Soviet borders. Why were the Soviets so uncooperative?

Foy Kohler, former ambassador to the Soviet Union, pointed out three reasons. First, the Soviets were concerned about maintaining a safeguard against internal relaxation as a result of increased exchanges between the two countries. The U.S. proposal to go to the moon together was considered to be one of the American methods aimed at the erosion of socialism

Second, the overall Soviet attitude toward Western countries, called ''peaceful coexistence,'' was considered by the Kremlin to be a form of struggle between opposing systems that could avoid war, but could not cooperate.

Third, Moscow treated all elements of policy as indissolubly linked; it refused to consider any form of space cooperation outside the overall context of the relationship between the two states, which could be characterized as Cold War.

For many years the Kremlin also used its pioneering achievements -- the world's first artificial satellite, and first manned space flight -- as tools to promote its global political plans. Space was the only area of technological and scientific progress where the Soviets were on the cutting edge. Acceptance of the U.S. proposals about the joint exploration of outer space might have been perceived by the rest of the world as a sign that the world-leading Soviet space program was beginning to falter.

There are two other factors. Soviet insistence on disarmament and the liquidation of American military bases bordering Soviet territory as preconditions for space cooperation could be

considered as an attempt to create a geostrategic border around the Soviet Union equal to the one around the United States. Second, the Soviet space program was an extension of the ballistic missile program and was veiled in secrecy. Cooperating with a potential adversary could have led to a security breach.

Inability to cooperate in space led to an extremely expensive and scientifically unjustified moon race. The Americans made six short-term expeditions to the moon, the last one 22 years ago. Frustrated about losing the race to the moon and facing technical problems with their moon booster N-1, the Soviets canceled their moon program in the early 1970s.

Now, when we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century, we should not forget its side effects: a heavy burden on the economies of both countries and the undermining of the long-term exploration of the moon.

Two lessons for the future: Do not make scientific enterprises a trump card in the political game; and do not make them dependent on the everyday fluctuations of bilateral relations.

Yuri Karash was a candidate for space flight in the Soviet Union. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in space policy at The American University.

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