Soviet scientist pushes cooperation with US on mission to Mars

Roald Sagdeyev is delighted that the Soviet space shuttle went up and down earlier this month without a hitch. Now, says the recently departed director of the Space Research Institute in Moscow, it's time to move on to more productive ventures. The complaints of Dr. Sagdeyev and some other Soviet officials about their nation's shuttle are well known: Its purpose is vague. It is expensive. And it takes away resources from other space projects. Sagdeyev is fond of telling Americans: ``We're spending 20th-century money on 21st-century technology.''

For Sagdeyev, speaking in a Monitor interview, the future of the Soviet space program is in international cooperation and in the pursuit of science for science's sake, not in the go-it-alone, nationalistic approach he sees some of his colleagues taking.

In particular, Sagdeyev has been pushing for a joint United States-Soviet unmanned mission to Mars. Earlier this month, US and Soviet space officials reached agreements on technical cooperation for Soviet flights to Mars in the 1990s. The talks are an outgrowth of an April 1987 US-Soviet treaty on nonmilitary space cooperation. The Soviets have offered to carry US scientific instruments on future flights to Mars. The US has agreed to help the Soviets pick a landing site on the Red Planet.

``We are trying to develop a common language,'' Sagdeyev says.

``We talk to each other about existing projects, how we can exchange data, how to support each other's projects. If the political climate could be better, we could do a joint space venture.''

At home, Sagdeyev faces resistance to this idea.

``At the meeting last month of the Academy (of Sciences), I was directly criticized by some members for stressing too much cooperation,'' Sagdeyev says. ``They said it's better to have national projects based on our own scientific expertise rather than become reliant on other countries.

``It's like a bad time 35 or 40 years ago when the notion of international contacts would be called `cosmopolitan.' Really, it's a longstanding argument in the Russian intelligentsia - going back almost 200 years....

``But at least I'm not alone in my attempts to make science more international. I believe in Gorbachev's new thinking,'' he says.

Apparently Mikhail Gorbachev, in turn, believes in Sagdeyev. Since General Secretary Gorbachev came to power in 1985, Sagdeyev has emerged as one of the Soviet leader's ambassadors for perestroika (restructuring) and is his adviser on the US ``star wars'' program. Speaking good English, he moves easily in international science crowds in frequent visits to the West.

It has been that contact with Western scientists that has demonstrated to him, he says, the ways in which Soviet science lags. Never mind the Soviets' leading position in long-term spaceflight, Venus exploration, and work toward establishing a permanent space station. The Soviet Union, Sagdeyev asserts, is so weak in fundamental science that it has little to contribute for practical application or to world scientific knowledge.

James Oberg, an expert on the Soviet space program, confirms Sagdeyev's views. He speaks of a ``crushing inferiority complex'' that leads them to drop promising lines of technology because they don't coincide with what others are doing. Without fundamental reform, Mr. Oberg says, Soviet science is ``locked into second place forever.''

The logjam on reform, however, may be starting to break. In the past few months, Sagdeyev says, ``we have broken through the psychological taboos'' on criticizing each other inside the Academy of Sciences, an especially insular group in which membership is lifelong. Sagdeyev himself made disparaging remarks about Alexander Dunayev, the head of Glavkosmos, the Soviet commercial space agency, in a speech to the Academy's board.

``International glasnost [openness] today works such that the whole world knows that at the head of this organization stands an odious figure,'' Sagdeyev said in the speech. ``At home this is `not known.'''

In that same speech, which will be published in the next issue of the Academy's journal, Sagdeyev also warned that Soviet space science is in danger of losing its ``leading position.''

The presence of figureheads in leadership positions has led to stagnation, he said. Speaking a month later, Sagdeyev said the situation had not changed, but the first step toward change is an open airing of views. Sagdeyev doesn't seem too concerned about criticism launched at him at a subsequent Academy meeting that he did not attend.

Sagdeyev says his own recent resignation as head of the Space Research Institute, much to the disappointment of American friends like Carl Sagan, was intended to show that he practices what he preaches: Fifteen years at the helm of an institute is an example, he says, of the kind of ``stagnation'' he is railing against. Dr. Sagan says he does not see any sort of personal or political conflicts contributing to Sagdeyev's resignation.

Sagdeyev, of late, has been dispensing freely (and bravely, says Sagan) with advice on how to get perestroika going in science: Break the institutes down into more manageable sizes. Introduce a system of competitive grants, like in the United States. Reestablish objective criteria for scientific progress; that is, no more ``fulfilling the plan'' for ``inventions'' or ``discoveries.'' Establish better lines of communication both among Soviet institutes and internationally, including more exchanges of researchers.

``One goal of perestroika,'' Sagdeyev wrote recently, ``is to break out of our recent scientific isolationism.'' And for economic restructuring to progress, he says, scientists must have a greater say in science-related decisions.

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