The United States government's stipulations over transfer of technology to its Western European allies could wreck the chances of cooperation between the US and Europe in the international space station project. That is the fear of officials at the Paris-based European Space Agency who are finalizing their negotiating stance for talks over collaboration.
At the end of January, the 11-nation ESA decided to accept in principle President Reagan's invitation to join in the design for the $8 billion orbiting base, to be built by the early 1990s.
The ESA decision did not, however, commit the West European countries to anything beyond a modest two-year set of design studies for a laboratory module called Columbus that could plug into the central core of the US orbiting structure.
If the Europeans decide to construct Columbus, their total investment could be more than $2 billion.
Before that happens, ESA and the US government must reach agreement on the basis on which collaboration would take place. The first step in what promises to be long and tough negotiations takes place today and tomorrow when Reimar L"ust, director general of ESA, meets James Beggs, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, for preliminary discussions on the issue.
According to ESA officials, technology transfer could be the main stumbling block. ESA thinks that, to facilitate cooperation, the US government should provide Europe with some technical assistance in areas of space technology in which the ESA nations are lagging.
Such areas could include propulsion technology, construction of large solar arrays, docking techniques, and computer control systems, for instance, to keep space structures in the correct orientation.
Urged on by the Pentagon, the US government in recent years has been reluctant to share insights into these kinds of technologies with West European countries. The fear is that the techniques could leak out via these nations to the Soviet Union, which could harness the ideas in military projects. This kind of thinking, according to ESA officials, could snuff out the chances of real collaboration on the space station.
Individual ESA nations, France in particular, may be disinclined to carry on with a joint project unless they receive firm assurances on the amount of technology that the US will share with its allies.
This issue is bound to surface in the discussions over a legally binding agreement that ESA says will be required before Western Europe agrees firmly to proceed in building its part of the station.
Other areas which will need to be hammered out are the rights of access to the station by nations that help in the design and construction of specific parts. ESA also wants a statement on what share of the station's operating costs (which may be $1 billion to $2 billion a year) that Western Europe will have to pay.
Assuming both sides can be satisfied, the agreement would have to be signed by the beginning of 1987, at which point the design phase is due to be finished, marking the start of construction.
The ESA says the agreement may have to be in the form of separate treaties between the US and each of the 11 ESA countries, which the US Senate would have to ratify. This would ensure that the new US administration in 1988 would not renege on previous understandings.