The exploration of space is in its most critical phase since the dawn of the Space Age three decades ago, and decisions that are being made now will define the character of space programs around the world for the rest of this century.
Interviews with experts in Moscow, Europe and the United States reveal that some space programs are retrenching dramatically while others fight to maintain their status, and it is clear that all face major turning points in the immediate future.
The Soviet Union is believed to be in the strongest position of all the space powers, but for the first time Soviet scientists are having to woo popular and political support within the Soviet Union, suggesting that a power struggle is under way that could seriously alter the Soviet program. "Everything must be justified," a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences said.
The European space program is besieged by internal bickering over pet projects that are being promoted by differing factions in the European Space Agency, and some member nations--most notably Great Britain--have severely reduced their commitment to space. A critical meeting in Holland next month will determine the scope of the European program through the end of the century.
The United States is perceived widely as a nation that has lost its commitment to space exploration, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is viewed as leaderless and, as one top European leader put it, plagued with "indecisiveness." European officials are also deeply concerned over past disappointments in joint ventures with NASA, and the major role Europe has been expected to play in the U.S. space station is in jeopardy.
Japanese scientists are pushing for a major expansion of their program at a cost of about $42 billion through the year 2000, tripling their budget, and Japan could emerge as a significant space power in the 1990s.
Other countries, most notably China and India, are moving forward with their neophyte programs. China is to launch a satellite next year that was first launched by the U.S. space shuttle and later rescued by another shuttle after it failed to reach its proper orbit.
Yet it appears that the dominant character of space exploration for the foreseeable future will continue to be the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States for world leadership, despite widespread discussions about international cooperation. The driving force behind space exploration is still nationalism.
There is, for example, no serious talk under way between the Soviet Union and the United States about such ambitious programs as a joint mission to Mars with the superpowers holding equal status. Instead, major international programs are most often viewed as projects that would bear the clear imprimatur of either the Soviet Union or the United States, with other nations playing supporting roles.
Nowhere is that more clear than in the proposed space station which NASA is fighting to save from congressional critics who question the value of a program that is now expected to cost well over $30 billion.
In Europe, the station is nearly always referred to as the "international space station."
But NASA refers to it as the U.S. space station with international partners.
U.S. Will Be Landlord
Even in the delicate negotiations that are under way between NASA and Europe over $2 billion worth of hardware Europe is supposed to provide, NASA is making it clear that the United States will be the landlord, Europe the tenant.
At a recent meeting of the International Aeronautics Federation in Brighton, England, one European scientist was almost apologetic when he described negotiations between the European Space Agency and NASA.
Europe, he said, will be required to provide and maintain its own habitable space module that will be attached to the U.S. station. But since it will depend on the U.S. facility for its life-support systems, Europe will also have to pay part of the operating cost of the overall station. And in exchange for being permitted to attach the module to the station and draw on its resources, the United States will reserve the right to use half of the space in the European module for U.S. experiments.
An audible groan swept through the room as some scientists heard the conditions for the first time.
"That's right," the scientist said. "The U.S. will have half the use" of the module.
There is at least a remote chance that Europe will decide next month to pull out of the space station, a move that many space policy experts believe would be devastating to the United States' stature in space exploration because it would represent yet another setback, although in this case political rather than technological.
Japan, which is also being asked to provide one habitable module, is being offered the same conditions, according to Japanese officials at the Brighton meeting.