With the Russians into Space


The United States and Russia have agreed on a joint space station project that might get NASA off the hook once again, despite its latest setback with the Mars Observer.

Big science is a big target for budget-cutters on Capitol Hill. The super-collider was rejected in the House and is fighting for survival in the Senate. The Space Station Freedom just made it through the House and faces its Senate test after the disappearance of the Mars spacecraft. By linking up with the Russians in a deal unimaginable during the Cold War, the Clinton administration has added two foreign-policy pluses to its case for the $19 billion space station.

For one thing, it got Moscow to back off from its $340 million contract to supply India with space technology and equipment that could be put to weapons use. In so doing, it secured Russia's adherence to the Missile Technology Control Regime -- a pact to stop trafficking in rocketry with war-fighting potential. For another, it provided a means to keep more Russian scientists gainfully employed at home instead of peddling their considerable knowledge elsewhere in dangerous ways.

Under the tentative plan signed by Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, American astronauts could be sent in mid-decade to the Russian space station MIR, which has been in orbit continuously since 1986, there to help maintain the aging craft and to prepare for later exploration.

In a second phase, the U.S. and Russia might link up modules each is now designing as a real joint venture gets underway. The U.S. agreed the joint spacecraft would be put into an orbit fully available to the Russians. The culmination of international cooperation in space would come if the Europeans, the Canadians and the Japanese then join in fashioning a third-phase spacecraft.

There are still problems a-plenty. U.S. companies fear losing market share now that the Russians have Washington's green )) light to provide launchers for commercial flights. America's traditional allies are peeved over being excluded from the big power negotiations. And there are worries that the Russian space program has so deteriorated during these years of political turmoil that it may no longer be as reliable as it once was.

Nevertheless, the American-Russian venture in space is a visionary breakthrough that deserves congressional support -- provided NASA at last puts its boondoggle days behind it.

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