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U.S., Russia to Jointly Build Space Station

September 03, 1993|RALPH VARTABEDIAN and DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration announced Thursday that it will collaborate with Russia to build an international space station, part of an aggressive new plan to lower the cost and speed construction of the long-delayed U.S. system.

The space station plan was one of four agreements on expanded aerospace cooperation unveiled by Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin in a ceremony that effectively ended the U.S.-Russian space race, which began with the launching of the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite in 1957.

Under the new accords, the United States will help keep Russia's cash-starved space program afloat with a pledge of $400 million in payments for services over the next four years. The United States also agreed to allow Russia to expand its potentially lucrative commercial space-launch program by carrying more Western communications satellites into orbit.

In exchange, Russia formally promised not to sell its missile technology to Third World countries for military uses, giving up a growing and profitable market.

"The combined space station will be significantly better than any of the options we could orbit on our own," Gore said at the White House signing ceremony after two days of meetings with Chernomyrdin.

Prospects for joint cooperation in space have been improving since the collapse of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union. In June, 1992, President George Bush and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin signed an agreement calling for a broad range of cooperative space ventures that could lead to a permanent partnership.

Faced earlier this year with a program estimated to cost $30 billion, the Clinton Administration was already in the middle of a major effort to scale back the cost and capability of the station. The Russian deal appears to be a key means by which the price of the project would be contained.

The agreement is also likely to affect thousands of aerospace industry jobs in Southern California, although officials could not immediately predict what the impact would be.

Russian and American officials will develop a plan to be submitted to the Administration Nov. 1, said Robert Clarke, associate administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The joint statement resulted from feasibility studies conducted by the two countries since August.

Clarke said that NASA will consider various options for using Russian hardware, but among the most attractive is to use the Russian Mir space station as an initial building block. The United States eventually would add its laboratory module, habitat module and other components, as well as European and Japanese modules.

By using Mir, the United States would eliminate one of the costliest steps of the station--orbiting an initial outpost with its own small life-support, power and propulsion systems. It would also cut up to two years off the schedule, allowing the construction to begin as early as 1996, rather than 1998.

With the addition of Russian hardware, the U.S. content of the space station would drop, but Clarke said he could not estimate how much. In its completed form, the station would still be composed of more than 50% U.S. hardware by value, he said.

Industry officials said they fear that the long-term effect would be to reduce the amount of work available to American contractors.

For example, NASA is considering using a Russian propulsion system to keep the station in orbit, a job that either McDonnell Douglas or Lockheed currently would get. Still, the industry is not likely to lobby against the Russian deal.

"This is a radical departure," said Mark J. Albrecht, who was the Bush Administration's space policy chief. " . . . But the alternative may have been to have the station canceled." Times staff writer James F. Peltz in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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