RUSSIAN experts are expected to arrive in Washington this week to help the United States rethink its space station, as ordered by President Clinton.
Their American hosts won't know exactly what help these visitors can offer.
But, at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) headquarters in Washington, there is cautious optimism that a budding Russian-American space partnership will unfold at least a little bit further.
"I believe we're already well into an extensive new period of cooperation between Russia and the United States," says Arnold Aldrich, NASA associate administrator for space systems development. He adds that "in my feeling, it's inevitable in the future that we will see more cooperation in terms of manned spaceflight somehow connected with space station activity."
NASA officials such as Mr. Aldrich are being careful not to raise premature expectations as to what the Russians can contribute to the redesign of space station Freedom. They note that their Russian guests will act as consultants to the redesign team. They won't become members of that team themselves.
Aldrich explains that Russian space experts are "clever people" who have developed impressive hardware and gained extensive operating experience with their space station Mir. NASA wants to find out what aspects of that experience and what hardware elements may be useful in redesigning Freedom.
Aldrich notes, however, that an ambitious joint spaceflight program already is under way. Two Russian cosmonauts now are training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
One of them will fly a mission on the American space shuttle in November.
Early next year, two American astronauts will go to Russia for training. One of them, together with two cosmonauts, will fly to the Mir space station on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in March 1995, according to the current schedule.
THREE months later, an American shuttle will dock with Mir to pick up the astronaut. However, Guy Gardner, a NASA deputy associate administrator for Russian programs, expects the shuttle to provide more than astronaut taxi service.
He explains that negotiations now are under way to have the shuttle perform a complete crew rotation for Mir. It would carry two fresh cosmonauts to the space station. Then the entire team that had been on Mir - both astronaut and cosmonauts - would board the shuttle for extensive medical tests.
One major outcome expected from this mission is a thorough evaluation of the Russian mechanism for docking spacecraft with a space station.
Russian engineers refined this technology for use with unmanned automatically piloted craft as well as with manned spaceships. The shuttle will use this mechanism to dock with Mir. NASA officials hope that, perhaps with some modifications, it can be used on space station Freedom.
If this is successful, it could become an international standard system to be used on all future manned spacecraft and space stations.
Mr. Gardner also notes that Russian, European, and American experts have cooperated in space-based life science research for many years. American space-medicine equipment is on loan to Mir, where it is used in studies that share data with American scientists. Gardner says that, in the future, NASA intends to send up equipment with American astronauts that probably will stay on board Mir to be used by cosmonauts and astronauts from other countries and from the European Space Agency.
Gardner notes that economics is one of the driving forces behind international space cooperation generally. No country now can afford unilaterally to fund what it wants to do in space.
At the same time, economic realities pose one of the major uncertainties in the Russian-American space relationship. Gardner notes that "it makes it difficult for me to deal with them [the Russians] when they are not a hundred percent certain who is going to be in control of how much money for their budget."
Likewise, uncertainties over NASA's budget and the future of its space station can crimp negotiations. "On the technical side, I think we all think along much the same lines," Gardner observes. It is the overarching nontechnical concerns that muddy cooperative planning.