The United States has told its Western allies it would like to receive a clear sign at the seven-nation economic summit in London early in June that they will back America's plan for an $8 billion space station.
President Reagan wants the leaders of Britain, West Germany, France, Italy, Canada, and Japan to give the project their blessing as a prelude to the finalization of detailed negotiations later this year.
The US is asking other countries to add $2 billion to $3 billion to the cash President Reagan has already committed. The station would be in orbit in the early 1990s and house scientific laboratories and prototypes of space factories.
The urgency with which the US wants the other countries to respond emerged during the ceremonies on May 9 as the 11-nation European Space Agency (ESA) celebrated 20 years of cooperative efforts in space science and technology.
At a conference at the agency's scientific center in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, leaders of Europe's space community indicated they would fall in with the US plans.
Prof. Hubert Curien, chairman of ESA and president of the French National Space Agency, said negotiations with the US had been ''encouraging.''
Points still to be cleared up include the cash that participating foreign countries should pay in maintaining the space base, whether vehicles other than the US space shuttle will be permitted to dock with it, and the exact nature of the technical work foreign partners will undertake.
ESA will coordinate its member countries' responses to the American offer. The agency spends some (STR)550 million ($780 million) a year on space projects, including the Ariane launcher, the Spacelab orbiting laboratory, and satellites for scientific experiments and telecommunications.
Set up in 1975, the agency took over the work of two bodies that both started in 1964 - the European Space Research Organization and the European Launcher Development Organization.
ESA's leading members are France, West Germany, Britain, and Italy, which among them, provide 70 percent of the budget. The other countries in the agency are Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
Two views are emerging as to how Europe could participate in the space station. In one approach, favored by West Germany, the ESA nations would build a module (perhaps based on spacelab parts) that could be fitted to an American-built central core.
In the second scheme, which France leans toward, the Europeans would work on a range of technologies that could find application throughout the space station.
For instance, the US could give Western Europe the task of working on docking technologies or particular parts of the communications hardware needed to link the orbiting base with earth.
This approach, its protagonists argue, would give the ESA nations more useful experience in building hardware for permanent operations outside the atmosphere. In due course, with the skills the countries would build up, they could even establish their own orbiting outposts, perhaps next century.
Professor Curien says that, although Europe should participate with the US on space projects, it should take care to develop its own capabilities.
The space agency chief goes as far as saying that Europe must, by the end of the century, adapt its Ariane rocket so that it can take people, not just satellites, into space.
The presence of people will be so important in future space structures, Curien says, that Europe cannot afford to rely on the United States (or the Soviet Union) to take them there. He favors the development of a capsule called Hermes that would cost some (STR)500 million ($700 million) to develop and sit on top of an especially powerful Ariane booster.