THIRTY-FIVE years after the first man-made satellite circled Earth, the space age has entered a new era. The world hailed Sputnik 1 as a symbol of a new phase of human achievement. But the former Soviet Union also used it for muscle flexing. Americans viewed it with alarm.
A few weeks ago, a Russian satellite circled Earth carrying a United States Defense Department experiment. Last month, cosmonauts Anatoly Solovyev and Sergei Avdeyev repositioned an antenna on their Mir space station to prepare for docking with an American space shuttle in 1994.
The space age has entered a new era of partnership.
"We no longer face a threat. We face an opportunity," says National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) administrator Daniel S. Goldin. The rivalries of the old space-race era would be a handicap now.
But, while space-faring nations acknowledge this opportunity, they aren't sure what to make of it. They are feeling their way into this era of partnership, in which the old alignments and modes of cooperation may no longer be relevant.
Brian D. Daley, executive director of the White House National Space Council, told the recent World Space Congress here that "we are, indeed, at a crucial crossroads" where there are challenges to face and decisions to make that "no one could envision a year ago."
Astronaut Charles Bolden, assistant deputy NASA administrator, remarked during a space-congress symposium that "we in NASA, right now ... [are] trying to formulate a vision ... a shared vision." He noted that "the shuttle is our recent past."
"But where are we going?," he asked. He said NASA says it and its partners hope they are going on to the new US space station and, eventually, on to Mars. "How to get there? That's what we're trying to decide," he explained.
NASA administrator Goldin calls Western cooperation with Russia "foremost" among the new space-era opportunities that will shape that decision. For the US, the first stage of such cooperation is covered by the agreement Presidents George Bush and Boris N. Yeltsen signed in June. It opens up a range of technical, scientific, and manned-flight possibilities.
Goldin and Russian Space Agency Director General Yuri Koptev have ratified, for example, a $1 million contract between NASA and NPO Energia - the now semi-independent company that builds the Soyuz-TM manned spacecraft. It provides for a year's study of three major space-flight possibilities:
1. Using the Soyuz-TM and the Russian Progress robot freight spacecraft with NASA's space station Freedom. Soyuz might serve as an astronaut lifeboat attached to the US space station. Last month, Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. and NPO Energia signed an intercompany nonexclusive consulting agreement that would ease the way for Lockheed if it were to win a contract to study Soyuz capabilities.
2. Placing American biology experiments on Mir. This would allow experiments with long lead times to get underway before space station Freedom is ready.
3. Using the Russian rendezvous and docking system, by which spacecraft dock with Mir, as a world standard docking system.
Such a system is needed for astronaut safety. Cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov, who flew on the joint Soviet-American mission 17 years ago, told a space-congress session that, were something to go wrong on the US shuttle or the Mir, "we do not now have the compatible craft" for Russians to rescue Americans or vice versa. He said international standards are needed so that future spacecraft will have common docking facilities and compatible atmospheres.
Vice President Dan Quayle, who chairs the National Space Council, calls the emerging new relationship with Russia "the late 20th-century version of turning swords into plowshares."
The United States' traditional space partners also are courting the Russians.
French cosmonaut Michel Tognini returned from two weeks on board Mir Aug. 10. France, which has cultivated ties to the Russian program for many years, already has sent cosmonauts on several space-station assignments. It calls the latest duty tour its first commercial mission and paid Russia $12 million for that opportunity to carry out biological and materials science experiments.
France recently signed a new agreement for four more Mir missions in this decade. Veteran French cosmonaut Jean Loup Cretien - who has flown on both Mir and its predecessor space station Salyut - is training on Tupolov 184 and MIG 25 aircraft. They are used as flight simulators for the Russian Buran space shuttle.
Germany and Japan also are exploring new bilateral cooperation with Russia. German and French financial and technical participation in Russia's program to send probes to Mars in 1994 and 1996 now is so extensive that the Russians refer to it as a Russian/European venture.
For its part, the 13-member European Space Agency (ESA) seems to be counting on Russian manned-space-flight cooperation.
At its Sept. 8 meeting, the ESA Council reviewed proposed plans for "a reorientation phase" of its space program that would be devoted to "intensive studies with Russia" on possible joint ventures. These include development of a manned spacecraft and European contributions to Russia's Mir 2 follow-on space station, now scheduled to be launched in 1996. ESA says this could lead to what it calls "a Euro-Russian space station." ESA nation ministers will consider the plan when they meet in Granada Nov. 9-10.
America's traditional space partners see cooperation with Russia as an alternative to their dependence on the US. Frederik Engstrom, ESA space-station and microgravity program director, observed during a space-congress session that Europe now has "a new path" to gain experience in manned space flight.
Quayle told the space congress that the US wants "to lead a global coalition in a cooperative effort in the peaceful use and exploration of space." But its traditional partners are no longer satisfied merely to play supporting roles. They have been hurt by American unilateral changes or even cancellation of joint projects. They are no longer willing to accept a "partnership" in which the US decides on a program and then invites others to join it.
As for the Russians, they see international cooperation as the only way to keep their space effort going. They will talk business with anyone.
Meanwhile, cosmonauts soon will begin training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston with the expectation that one of them will fly on an American shuttle in October next year. And Americans soon will be at Star City, near Moscow, training for Mir missions. Mr. Leonov looks forward to this, saying: "We have all the facilities.... We are ready to go to work right now."