Russia/NASA: Can This Marriage Be Saved?

A new age of US-Russian cooperation in space seems in the offing. But under the hype and symbolism is an ugly reality: Russia has almost no money for space. And, without money, there can't be meaningful cooperation, as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is starting to discover.

Big ambitions, such as NASA's plans for a large, permanently manned, orbiting space station, require big money. As money became scarcer in Washington in the early 1990s, NASA faced a choice: Shrink the station, accept cancellation, or find a new source of money. NASA, with Clinton administration blessing, decided in 1993 that bringing the Russians on board was the best solution.

The advertised advantages were numerous. What could, after all, be a better sign of US-Russian friendship than working side by side (literally) where competition and suspicion had long ruled? NASA could learn from Russia's long and very successful history of space station operations. And the financial strain on NASA of building the station, dubbed the international space station "Alpha," would be reduced - Russia agreed to provide 38 percent of its overall hardware.

The Russians, meanwhile, would get cash as hosts of American astronauts on Russia's Mir space station and gain access to the international space station.

By the early 1990s it was clear they would not have the resources to replace Mir - the first parts of which were launched in 1986 - as it aged out. As a first step in the entire process, US shuttles would dock with Mir nine times. (Atlantis's recent flight was the fifth.)

Even with Russian involvement, Alpha is a very big project for NASA. It essentially is the American manned space flight program. The US share of the costs, excluding launch expenses, is $17 billion through assembly - with Europeans, Japanese, and Canadians also making large contributions. Three of NASA's four shuttles are being modified for space station operations. By 1999 all but one launch a year of the shuttle program's seven or eight annual $400-million-a-flight missions will be to Alpha. Construction is scheduled to be completed in 2002.

Unfortunately for NASA, these plans are based on a healthy Russia, which is willing and able to fund its space program. And most certainly the spirit is willing - the Russian people are rightly proud of a long and successful history of achievement in space. The problem is money.

As the Russian economy has slowed dramatically, so has Russian space activity. The head of the Russian Space Agency, Yuri Koptev, recently stated that space funding has dropped by 80 percent since 1989. In 1996, Russia flew fewer space missions (24, including four failures) than the US (33, all but one a success), the first time this has happened since 1966. Russian resupply missions to Mir have been halved.

Of more immediate concern to NASA is when - or even if - the Russians can deliver their parts of Alpha. The critically important Russian-funded-and-built service module was to be the third element of the new station to go into space. Without this piece, or some similar stage to provide the station with propulsion to keep it out of the grasp of Earth's atmosphere, station construction cannot proceed. Launch was to be in April 1998.

"Was" is the key word; the Russian government has been unable to find enough money to keep construction on schedule. Despite numerous high-level US contacts, including those by Vice President Al Gore, and repeated Russian promises, the problem persists. Current estimates are that the service module will be finished eight months late, though this assumes that funds actually are released for the project soon.

This obviously creates problems for NASA. Any Russian lateness delays American station activities, pushing back shuttle flights, and causes very serious cost overruns at a time of already stretched NASA budgets. In recent days NASA has announced it will build a stopgap replacement for the service module to keep its operations on schedule. This stage, at a price of just under $100 million, will be built with American - and not Russian - money. NASA is also looking at longer-term replacement for the service module. International partnership apparently has its limits.

As for other planned Russian contributions to the international space station - labs, solar panels, resupply flights on unmanned rockets - not much has been said recently. When the first part of the project is underfunded and late, it cannot be taken as a good sign for the rest.

Cooperation where only one side can afford to play is not cooperation. At best it resembles charity, at worst it is a sham - an empty faade that misleads but contributes little. And the Russian-American space partnership, unfortunately, could well be approaching that point.

* Michael Lowrey, an adjunct fellow with the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, N.C., teaches economics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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