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U.S. Proposes Space Merger With Russia to Build Station

By Kathy Sawyer
The Washington Post


The Clinton administration Thursday unveiled the outlines of a high-stakes plan to merge the American and Russian space programs in order to boost the sagging prospects of both.

Worked out in the last two months by former rival Cold Warriors in the two space agencies, the proposal calls for U.S.-led construction of an international space station in Earth orbit beginning in 1997.

The agreement does not cancel the current U.S. plan to develop space station Alpha but would connect Alpha to the planned second-generation version of the Russian Mir station. Construction of the joined facility would require 19 American shuttle launches and 12 by Russian boosters.

The prospect is daunting in its cultural and political as well as technical complexity and would represent, according to White House science adviser John Gibbons, "the largest international venture ever undertaken by countries in history, other than fighting wars." Russia would join Europe, Japan and Canada as a partner in the space station project, but the United States would retain total command and control authority, NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin and his Russian counterpart Yuri Koptev said Thursday at NASA headquarters. Key members of Congress had earlier expressed alarm at reports the plan might yield too much authority to the Russians.

Asked if this "junior partner" role would concern the Russians, Koptev responded drily, "We spent about 70 years trying to decide who is the junior, who is the senior partner. It doesn't seem helpful."

Goldin said the time has come for America to stop its costly indecision on the issue and make a commitment. "We don't have the resources to keep two separate programs going. ... The Russians are giving up their independent space station. I believe we in America have an obligation to assure the Russians we're not going to walk away from the space station."

Vice President Gore and Goldin briefed leaders of House and Senate space committees Thursday. Rep. George E. Brown Jr., D-Calif., chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology committee, called the plan "a major accomplishment for which (Gore and Goldin) deserve great credit. ... However, the devil will be in the details."

The report does not provide detailed cost estimates and other specifics sought by legislators; many are still being worked out. Goldin said he expects Russian participation to save $3 billion to $4 billion over the current plan for Alpha, because it shortens the construction of the orbital facility by two years. With the Russians, the station would be available for limited research in late 1997 and completed for permanent human occupancy in October 2001.

If the administration can gain assurances of support from Congress, as well as from the other international partners who have contributed $3 billion to the project, officials said, Gore is expected to sign an agreement to move forward with the project when he visits Moscow in mid-December.

The participation of the Russians would mean numerous advantages for the U.S. program, said Goldin, who guided the report's preparation. These include 25 percent more enclosed volume for living and working, a crew of six instead of four, 40 kilowatts more power, a better level of stable weightlessness for science research, impreoved safety and reliability and more efficient supply and servicing of the facility, he said.

Among the Russian-supplied components would be propulsion, guidance and navigation equipment, a docking system and resupply vehicles. The United States and Russia would jointly develop an airlock, rescue vehicles, batteries and other power supply components.

America would move its planned "site" in orbit to the same track as the present Mir station.

The plan envisions the world's first electronically linked joint control centers -- one in Houston and one for backup in Kaliningrad, northeast of Moscow. Controllers in both control rooms and all flight crews would be trained in English and Russian.

Addressing another congressional concern, Goldin said his goal is that there be no massive transfer of funds to Russia, other than those already agreed to: $400 million over the next four years for equipment and services. Instead, there would be a barter arrangement for services and equipment. The only exception, he said, is a U.S. plan to lease the Russian space tug that is to provide mobility for the space station.