US experts cast envious eye at Soviet space plans
On May 24, the US-Soviet agreement for cooperation in space research will expire. Because of Soviet pressure on Poland it is not to be renewed.
However, with recent cutbacks in US space research and the continued vigor of the Soviet program, American space scientists wonder who is really being punished.
The Soviets are maintaining momentum across the board in their space program, which could give them leadership positions in this decade in such diverse fields as planetary research and permanently manned space stations.
On March 1 and 5, Soviet Veneras 13 and 14, respectively, landed on Venus. They returned a stunning array of color photos while reporting the first ever chemical analyses of that planet's surface. The US Geological Survey is hurrying to acquire copies of the Soviet data tapes before the cooperative agreement runs out.
These Veneras were to have been followed by four others in 1984. But with the US out of the running to visit Halley's comet when it returns in 1986, two of those spacecraft have been reassigned to a Halley's flyby mission.
For its part, the US has little money for the planets in the proposed fiscal 1983 budget. Only the Galileo Jupiter mission survives. Planetary spacecraft still operating would, for the most part, be shut down. This would include the Pioneer Venus Orbiter, whose radar maps helped the Soviets target their Venus probes.
The US is concentrating its space resources on the reusable shuttle. The Soviets are equally intent on achieving their long-announced goal of orbiting a permanently manned space station, the first element of which may be launched this year. However, unlike the US with its emphasis on the shuttle, the Soviets appear to be maintaining support for other aspects of their program as well.
This sense of priorities is reflected in launch statistics. The US has cut back a once busy launch schedule to a couple dozen or less per year; the USSR launch program consistently runs to several times that number.
Last year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) conducted 17 launches - 13 for customers outside the agency with communications, navigational, and weather satellites; two scientific satellites; and two shuttle test flights. This year, NASA expects around 16 launches. Again these will be mainly launch services for the communications, navigational, and weather satellites of foreign and domestic customers, plus three shuttle missions.
Even when the few additional military launches by the Department of Defense are added, the total does not begin to approach the 98 launches last year of the Soviet Union. These put something like 125 payloads in orbit. They included a broad range of military, weather, Earth resources, communications, and scientific vehicles.
Four missions were flown to the Salyut-6 space station - three manned craft and one unmanned supply ship. A two-man ''living-in'' crew occupied the station for 75 days. Two other teams visited them, spending 188 hours in space each time.
It is the capacity to sustain this broad and intense space effort, with an 8 percent annual growth rate, which Western analysts generally consider to be the most impressive aspect of the Soviet program. The Soviets persevere in spite of many setbacks, such as the loss of three Salyut stations in the 1970s even before they could be occupied by cosmonauts.
Were such a broad, vigorous space program under way in the US, it would attract wide media attention. As it is, the US press plays relatively little attention to the Soviet effort. This disappoints NASA administrator James M. Beggs. He has said a number of times he wishes there were more such coverage to highlight the growing Soviet capability and stimulate more interest in the US space posture. He has said he hopes the advent of a permanently manned Soviet space station will gain this attention.
Such a station would succeed Salyut-6, which was officially retired last year after four years' service. Soviet space officials have said its successor will be a central unit to which other specialized units, such as a manned astronomical observatory or an industrial laboratory, could be attached. In this way, a station could be built up of replaceable modules, each of which would have its own communications and power supply. The Cosmos-1267 craft, which docked with Salyut-6 after its retirement, may have been a test of this concept.
From what is known in the West, the Soviet station would hold up to 12 cosmonauts at a time. The number would depend on the job to be done. Crews would rotate frequently. But the station would be manned at all times.
A shuttle-like craft that could land on a runway like an airplane could be available by mid-decade to service such a station. This probably would not be a large reusable craft like the US shuttle. Some Soviet officials have said they see no need for such a craft in this decade, although at least one has suggested it could be developed earlier. A large launch rocket in the class of the Saturn 5 moon rocket is also believed to be under development to loft heavy payloads.
While US analysts would not be surprised to see Salyut-7, the central unit for the new space station, launched soon, there is some question as to whether or not a French-Soviet crew may pay one last visit to the ''retired'' Salyut-6 first.
Meanwhile, the Soviets talk of building Cosmograd - a city in the sky. They admit this is still for the indefinite future. Meanwhile, Anatoly Y. Skripko, science and technology attache at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, has said a manned mission to Mars may be considered within 15 years. Whatever happens, as space analyst James Oberg has observed, when the Salyut-7 permanently manned station is established, ''. . . there will never again be a moment when at least one human being is not in space.''