THE United States needs to make up its mind about space cooperation. Either it wants to exercise true leadership by forming a partnership to build and use an orbiting space station, or it wants a national facility where foreign ``partners'' are merely dues-paying guests. So far, it has acted like the boy who insists everyone play the game his way just because he's contributing most of the marbles.
Now the Department of Defense has asked NASA to hold up final negotiations while it stakes a space station claim. Having had no use for the station in the past, DOD officials are talking of research for the Strategic Defense Initiative.
As now planned, Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency (ESA) would contribute some 20 percent of the station, with ESA and Japan supplying complete manned modules. Congress has insisted that the United States get 80 percent of the benefits for paying 80 percent of the costs. Under this congressional pressure, NASA has forced ESA and Japan to agree not to carry out potentially profitable materials research in their modules. NASA has also insisted on a degree of control over station design and operation, which ESA, especially, considers needlessly dictatorial.
NASA and its partners had hoped to come up with a workable arrangement in negotiations to start later this month. Now the DOD has both delayed and complicated the talks. The prospect of SDI research will hardly thrill the foreign partners, who have wanted a purely civilian station.
It would be simplistic to blame American chauvinism for this muddle. The ambiguity toward international cooperation reflects the general uncertainty over what the United States wants to do in space.
NASA announced the start of the shuttle program 15 years ago yesterday. It did not know then, and does not know now, how best to use the spacecraft. The myth of a cost-effective ``truck'' to meet all US launch needs has evaporated. No one knows how those needs will be fully met.
President Reagan has ordered NASA out of the commercial launch business, while allowing it to use the shuttle to honor 14 of its satellite launch contracts. Meanwhile, the Department of Commerce is trying to encourage skeptical managers of private industry to enter the field.
The Pentagon, once ordered to rely on the shuttle, has won the right to maintain a stable of unmanned rockets. The design developed may also be adaptable as a commercial launch vehicle, although that is uncertain. The ``heavy lift'' rocket, capable of orbiting 150,000 pounds, for which Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has requested an extra $250 million, could also be useful to NASA. Again, that is uncertain.
What is certain is that the military has become the major American space player. The DOD space outlay in fiscal 1986 was $13.1 billion, compared with $7.2 billion for NASA. Even with the independent launch capability it is building, the DOD has something like 21 priority payloads waiting for the shuttle. Now it wants a role in the space station.
For its part, NASA continues to rely on the shuttle. It will use the fleet, including Challenger's replacement, to construct the space station, having decided throw away rockets are unsuitable. It hasn't provided such rockets for space science missions either. Given the heavy demands on the shuttle for military and commercial launches and station construction, NASA will have little spare launch capacity for an aggressive science program.
The Reagan administration says it has a space policy represented by the programs and policies of NASA and the Departments of Commerce and Defense. In fact, it has no overarching space goals. Under these circumstances, the American attitude toward international cooperation is bound to be ambiguous.
Commerce wants to compete - not cooperate - with other nations. International civilian programs are not on the DOD agenda. Lacking a higher objective defined by Presidential leadership, Congress wants its nationalistic money's worth out of the space station.
One larger goal to which lip service, at least, is paid is space leadership. This can only come through meaningful partnership. Admiration for past achievements is not leadership. Thus, space station negotiations raise the larger question of how important space leadership is to the Reagan administration. If it is important enough to be a major goal, then the President should say so and should let national priorities reflect that judgment.
Meanwhile, French and British astronauts train for visits to the Soviet Mir space station. And European scientists consult with Soviet experts on the next unmanned mission to Mars.
A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.