Russian-US space cooperation -- a dream since the detente era -- is suddenly moving forward.
A set of agreements between the two countries signed last week smoothed the way for several joint projects, including long-planned missions between United States space shuttles and Russia's Mir space station.
Cooperation has become the key element in the larger global partnership of space-faring nations that has coalesced around the international space station. It is a partnership that now extends to other space-research areas such as environmental monitoring and planetary exploration.
These nations ''are creating the structure in which human space flight will take place for a long time,'' explains Washington-based space policy analyst John Logsdon at George Washington University. ''It really is fundamental.''
The Russian-US aspect of the global partnership will come dramatically to public attention next year as the US space shuttle and Russian Mir space station begin a series of joint missions. In February, the shuttle Discovery will rendezvous with Mir and practice aligning the docking ports on the two craft. Russian Cosmonaut Vladimir Titov will be part of the shuttle crew to assist in this tricky maneuver. The crew of the shuttle Atlantis demonstrated the spacecraft handling involved last month when it re trieved the Crista-Spas satellite.
In March, US astronaut Norman Thagard is scheduled to fly on a Russian spacecraft to Mir for a three-month tour. Dr. Thagard and his alternate Bonnie Dunbar have been training at the Star City space center outside Moscow since February. After three months, Atlantis is due to dock with Mir. It will carry a replacement crew and bring back Thagard and his Russian teammates. That will be the first of seven to 10 shuttle visits to Mir over the next three years.
Held up in Customs
The road to successful Russian-US space partnership is rough. Different cultures, different bureaucracies, different technical approaches all raise unexpected bumps. In a meeting last week, US Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomrydin smoothed out one of those bumps. As National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) administrator Daniel Goldin explains: ''In our naive fashion, we thought that the United States was going to ship hundreds of pieces of space equipment to R ussia and magically it would get through customs.'' Instead, Russian customs held up the shipments, including equipment needed for Thagard's Mir mission. The Gore-Chernomrydin meeting ensured that such shipments would enter Russia easily, according to Don Miller in NASA's international affairs office.
Mr. Miller notes two other important agreements concluded last week. One provides for a NASA ozone-monitoring instrument to orbit on Russian's new Meteor 3 weather satellite. Also, the two countries have agreed to establish dual space-biomedical centers at the University of Texas in Houston and at Moscow State University.
A number of committees monitor the Russian-US cooperative space programs and work out their details. However, the semi-annual sessions of the Joint Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation, which Mr. Gore and Mr. Chernomrydin chair, is where major agreements are reached and tough problems such as customs foul-ups are solved. Last week's meeting was the fourth of these sessions, which deal with others matters besides space.
The two major agreements now governing the partnership were concluded in Washington during the last commission meeting in June. One of these agreements is a $400-million contract that provides for shuttle-Mir missions and joint research programs on Mir. The other is an interim agreement that is a first step in bringing Russia into the space station project. Miller at NASA says that negotiations should be concluded next year to include Russia in the full space-station Intergovernmental Agreement with al l the partners -- Canada, Europe, and Japan as well as the United States.
Looking farther ahead, Russia and the US are studying joint exploration of the Sun and distant Pluto. They are studying with other nations possible future Mars exploration in which Europe and Japan would join in coordinated efforts. None of this is easy. Uncertainties are rising about the future ability of both the United States and Russia to fund some of these projects. There are disagreements about who is to pay for what in the Russian-US partnership. Yet there is a momentum for global cooperation.
Dr. Logsdon notes that ''we now have opened the door to any nation that has the capacity'' to join in a global space partnership.
He believes that the logic for such cooperation is compelling. ''If we're ever going to get off this planet, it's going to be [an] international [effort],'' he says. ''There's such a strong logic to [the Russian/US space partnership],'' he adds. ''It ought to stand up to bumps in the road or other aspects of Russian and US relationships.''