Touring NASA's shuttle base, you soon realize that the three remaining orbiters represent a powerful United States spaceflight capacity. A United States capacity?
Where would astronauts be without that versatile Canadian mechanical arm to haul in crippled satellites? How would orbiting scientists work in shirt-sleeve comfort without the European-supplied Spacelab? Could they manipulate their telescopes without Europe's instrument-carrying pallet? And didn't a West German control center guide a West German shuttle mission last fall?
``We musn't forget that space is international,'' warns Ray A. Williamson of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). ``That's very important,'' he adds, because the US and the Soviet Union can no longer act as though they owned the ``final frontier.''
Now there are space-faring partners with whom the US can develop this frontier -- partners who also compete vigorously for the business that's emerging. Some of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's customers turned to Europe's Arianespace company for launch service when the shuttles ceased to fly. Now that the Ariane rocket, itself, is grounded, China's bid to launch satellites at prices 10 to 15 percent below the Western competition looks attractive.
Indeed, Sweden and Teresat Inc. of Houston are exploring the Chinese offer. Although its space program may be small by Western standards, ``China certainly has the potential to be a commercial competitor,'' says Crawford W. Brubaker, assistant secretary for aerospace in the US Commerce Department.
While several European countries have strong national space programs, Western Europe's main efforts are channeled through the European Space Agency (ESA). Its 11 current members include Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, West Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Austria and Norway become full members next January. Canada has an agreement of close cooperation.
ESA's staff of 1,376 people (at the end of 1985) is small, But the agency contracts out most work, drawing on the resources of its members. Its 1986 budget is equivalent to about $831 million. Funds of this magnitude support an ambitious program that recently sent a probe to Halley's comet and that hopes to develop Europe's own manned-spaceflight capacity, perhaps by this century's end.
ESA is already involved with the US shuttle and space-station programs. The agency and some of its members maintain an astronaut corps large enough to have its own professional organization.
Europe's main launch vehicle is the French-made Ariane rocket, which has evolved through several versions. The current model is grounded pending investigation of the failure that destroyed an Ariane carrying the Intelsat VF14 communications satellite May 30. This commercial Ariane is operated for the European partners by Arianespace. The company's order book of 32 launches over the next few years represents nearly $1.4 billion worth of business.
ESA continues to develop the Ariane design to make it more versatile and more powerful. Eventually, it should carry the Hermes space plane. Smaller than the US shuttle, Hermes would carry two or three astronauts and some cargo to what may one day be a European space station.
ESA officials have said Western Europe means to go ahead with manned flight even if the US were to abandon its space-station project. For the moment, though, ESA is heavily involved in that US program. It expects to supply an associated instrument-carrying platform in polar orbit. On the station itself, ESA is to supply one of the four main workspace modules. Japan expects to build another.
The Japanese pursue space activity with an intensity to match that of Western Europe and on almost as ambitious a scale. Their program has developed using American rocket designs. But now it's on the way to launch-vehicle independence. An all-Japanese rocket able to orbit major satellites should have its test flight in 1992. Once it becomes operational, ``we shall be able to participate in all aspects of world space activities,'' says Hiroyuki Osawa, president of Japan's National Space Development Agency.
``All aspects'' includes manned spaceflight. Among Japan's long-term plans is development of a small, unmanned space plane -- leading to a two-man space shuttle over the next 15 years.
Japan, which has its own weather satellite, has already launched a number of communications satellites and space probes. Its $1.044 billion 1986 space budget represents the high priority the country gives its space program as an investment in what is expected to be a major 21st-century commercial field.
Meanwhile, far to the southwest, India is quietly building a space capability that has already won world respect. India is the only country with a system that combines communications, weather observations, and resource remote-sensing in a single satellite. The present series of these Indian-designed satellites is being built by Ford Aerospace. But India has geared up to make the next series itself.
The country has met some of its space needs by buying satellites and launch services abroad. It has used Ariane, Soviet boosters, and the US shuttle. But it has also developed its own line of rockets. As these become more powerful, more launches are being made from Indian bases. Although India has no immediate manned-spaceflight ambitions, an Indian guest cosmonaut visited a Soviet Salyut space station in June 1984.
India's $200 million-a-year program employs some 15,000 people. For a developing country that's a substantial investment -- one that India considers vital to its future. Referring particularly to communications and Earth sensing, U. R. Rao, secretary of the Indian Department of Space, told Sky & Telescope magazine: ``I think it is clear that if this country is to see development in its backward areas, the quickest way is through space.''
This aspect of space development has caught OTA's eye. It urges the US to pay attention to ``third-world interest in space science as a means of building the infrastructure'' to gain practical benefits. It warns that ``the United States must remain cooperative in space science in order to remain competitive'' as global markets for space products and services develop, especially in the third world.
Cooperation can benefit all parties. Shared expenses cut each partner's costs. And haves can help have-nots, as grounded US scientists discovered when Japan offered space on a solar-physics mission last March.
Thinking of the multinational teams that will inhabit the US space station, NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless says, ``[We'll] have additional strength through diversity. . . . It will serve to prevent any sort of aura of mystery or sinisterness of having the space station up there.''
Seventh of 10 articles. Next: Why the moon and Mars?