Britain may join US in space

Military officials in Britain are lending their voice to the argument that Western Europe should help the United States in plans to build a primarily civilian space station in the 1990s. Civil servants in Britain's Ministry of Defense are discussing how they could benefit from work on board the station.

Britain's military officials are keen on the potential of work with high-resolution cameras on board a free-flying platform that may be part of Europe's contribution to the station. The platform would orbit over the poles and so provide coverage of the whole of the globe's surface. With the cameras, defense chiefs could obtain pictures of sensitive areas of the world such as the Falklands or missile silos in the USSR.

The development, which illustrates the overlap between civilian and military activities in space, comes as European nations are deciding on the form collaboration with the US should take.

Members of the 11-nation European Space Agency are to meet in Rome at the end of this month to decide whether to spend up to $2 billion on a special module that would plug into the US core of the station. President Reagan has already committed $8 billion from federal funds for the American part of the orbiting base.

Because the cash for the station will come from the budget of NASA -- a civilian agency -- no operational military applications will be permitted, according to a NASA spokesman.

But there is nothing to stop the Pentagon, or military officials from other participating nations, in using the base for research, the spokesman confirmed.

In Western Europe, Britain has taken a back seat in space affairs to France and West Germany, the Continent's two biggest spenders on space technology. But in recent weeks the British Ministry of Defense has woken up to the usefulness of the station. Civil servants have had discussions with their counterparts in the Department of Trade and Industry (Britain's government department that has responsibility for most elements of space policy) over the military aspects of the orbiting structure. This may push Britain toward taking a more positive view of the venture.

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