IT'S a new era for space research. Commercial competition continues, but the old national rivalries are passe.
The major space powers now are painfully aware that none of them can afford to go it alone. Even the multinational European Space Agency (ESA) is abandoning its French-inspired ambition to be self-sufficient in both manned and unmanned space flight. This awareness is clearly evident in the efforts ESA and the United States are making to find ways of working with the faltering Russian space program and space industry.
ESA member states, for example, authorized the agency to place contracts directly with Russian institutes and companies for research connected with ESA's Hermes space plane project. This is not a major program. ESA has scaled Hermes down from a manned ship to an unmanned demonstration craft. Nevertheless, this degree of partnership with Russia is unprecedented.
Meanwhile, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) administrator Daniel S. Goldin recently took a high-level American delegation to Russia to explore implementation of the space cooperation agreements Presidents Bush and Yeltsin announced in June. This, too, is unprecedented. Mr. Goldin notes that both countries want to start slowly and build a solid partnership. But they are talking about a cooperative intimacy that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
Russian cosmonauts will likely fly on NASA's shuttle while American astronauts work on the Russian MIR space station. The Russian system for docking spacecraft with the MIR may be adopted as the world standard. A Russian Salyut spacecraft may serve as the standby "lifeboat" for the American space station Freedom. Eventually, an advanced rescue vehicle may be developed for the station by ESA. The new cooperation will also involve closer international partnership in all aspects of space science such as mon itoring Earth from orbit and exploring the solar system.
This is a healthy trend. The desirability of partnership has received lip service for many years. But concerns about national prestige, security, technology transfer, and lack of mutual trust, have stood in the way. Now these concerns are largely obsolete.
ESA, Japan, Russia, and the US have much to contribute to joint efforts. It will take a great deal of mutual adjustment and patience to forge the new partnerships. However, there are powerful economic and strategic reasons for doing it. By the decade's end, we may see the emergence of a unified world space exploration program.