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Space Race Now Joint Venture

The U.S. and Russia, which once competed to conquer the cosmos, have become partners in the quest. America is getting expertise and equipment; its cash is keeping its former rival's program aloft.

May 14, 1997|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STAR CITY, Russia — Five years of capitalism have created a new face for Russia's space program, and it is starting to look a lot like its longtime rival: corporate America.

At once-secret Soviet facilities, Russian and American engineers now work together to design and build space vehicles. U.S. firms such as Lockheed Martin and Hughes Electronics collaborate with Russia on commercial satellite launches. Astronauts and cosmonauts train side by side for joint missions in space.

At the factory where Russian spacecraft are built, a huge new Proton rocket bears the freshly painted logo of the company it will serve: Motorola. At mission control, Russian scientists work with Boeing on a plan to launch rockets from an oceangoing platform that will be based in Long Beach. And in a deal with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, satellites to expand access to the Internet will be put in orbit by Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles.

What was once a space race has become a joint venture.

"International cooperation is the next step in exploring space," said cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, a rocket engineer training for his first trip into the cosmos. "We are joining efforts and getting new expertise and experience that we could not get separately."

During the Cold War, the space industry was one of the favored sectors of the Soviet economy, with vast resources at its disposal. The Soviet Union's accomplishments--including putting the first human in orbit--created a sense of national pride and bolstered the Communist nation's image as a superpower.

But Russia's transition to a market economy has reduced the space program to less than 30% of its former size and left scientists scrambling to find ways to pay for their projects. Today, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the survival of the Russian space program hinges on its newfound partnership with the United States.

Although critics in both countries have raised questions about the increased U.S. role here, Russia has much to offer foreign partners willing to take risks: With 25 years' experience operating manned space stations, for example, its scientists have expertise and equipment that could take the United States years and billions of dollars to duplicate.

"We must work together," said Gen. Alexei Leonov, Russia's greatest living cosmonaut and the first person to walk in space. "We'll spend less using our mutual experience. It's very beneficial for the Americans. You don't need to invent the bicycle again, do you?"

At the heart of the cooperative effort is the planet's biggest space project: the International Space Station, now under construction in the United States and Russia. The first units of the station are scheduled for launch next year, with the station expected to be fully operational by 2002.

But to the dismay of space scientists around the globe, the fiscal crisis that has gripped Russia is jeopardizing the station and the future of the country's space program.

The failure of the Russian government to deliver promised funds has forced designers to announce an eight-month delay in the planned completion of the station's crucial service module. The unit, awaiting completion at a factory in Moscow, is the one segment of the station that was to be financed and built entirely by Russia.

NASA officials are concerned that there could be even greater slippage in the schedule and will decide this month whether to spend up to $100 million to build a replacement module that could be used temporarily in assembling the station.

Financial Black Hole

In the U.S. Congress, the setback has prompted critics to question Russia's role in the project and whether the struggling nation will be able to fulfill its 1993 commitment to help build the station. Some members of Congress have renewed efforts to scrap the program, contending it will become a financial black hole.

The orbiting station, as big as nearly two football fields, will cost at least $30 billion for its 15 partners, which also include Canada, Japan, Britain, Italy, France and Germany. Floating almost 220 miles above the Earth, it will be able to house six astronauts at a time and provide seven laboratories.

The new outpost in space--dubbed the International Space Station by NASA and called Alpha by Russia--will replace Russia's aging Mir station, which has begun to suffer serious maintenance problems after more than 11 years of continuous use.

Despite the delay of the launch until late 1998, Russian officials insist the station can still be completed more quickly and cheaply than it could without Russia's participation. They expect to make up lost time during the assembly phase and still meet the 2002 deadline.

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