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NASA's grand space-station program - is it too chauvinistic?

According to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a permanently manned space station is the next logical step in developing the orbital frontier. A widely publicized study released Nov. 13 by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) criticizes NASA's space station plans as trying to do too much too soon. But neither NASA's vision nor OTA's critique really faces the fact that the United States - or the Soviet Union, for that matter - can no longer develop the space frontier as it pleases on its own.

In this regard, NASA and OTA appear to share a common chauvinistic viewpoint. Both have concluded that the US needs some sort of permanent infrastructure in near-Earth orbits, including some sort of manned facility. Both reckon that this will provide a base for moving on to higher orbits and eventually to bases on the moon or Mars. Both emphasize the desirability of international cooperation in such programs. Both assume that the United States should lead and shape that cooperation and that this would be a good thing for all mankind.

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As the OTA report puts it, ''. . . if we administer and manage our space activities with vigor, imagination, and statesmanship; and if we take the lead in orchestrating the space interests and activities of all the friendly countries of the world; then we can move civilian space activities into the mainstream of America's - indeed the world's - interests, reap great political, social, and economic benefits, and very soon begin to have our men and women strike out across the solar system.''

It is highly doubtful that other countries, friendly or not, want the United States to ''take the lead in orchestrating'' their space interests. It is also doubtful that the United States can retain much leadership at all if it continues to treat Western Europe, Canada, and Japan as apprentices rather than equals.

As OTA itself noted last July in a report on space competition, Western Europe and Japan have become major players in space commerce and exploration. Europe's Ariane rocket is taking satellite-launching business away from the US shuttle. France and Japan are likely to preempt the market for resource-mapping by satellite. And when Halley's comet arrives next year, it will be greeted by European, Japanese, and Soviet spacecraft but not by any US probes.

An OTA report in July observed that Western Europe and Japan have made enormous technical and organizational advances as space players over the past decade. But, it added, the United States has not fully adapted to these changes. OTA itself seems to have forgotten this in its space station critique.

NASA has been seeking Canadian, Japanese, and Western European cooperation in the space station program, and OTA is urging it to seek even harder. But neither NASA nor OTA envisions a full partnership. Both think in terms of a minority share in a NASA-dominated, NASA-determined effort. The minority share would amount to perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the $8 billion NASA estimates is needed to put its version of a space station on orbit in seven to eight years.

Such spending could significantly distort the space budgets of Japan, Canada, and Western European nations without giving them a commensurate role in the program. They do not like the prospect. Ministers of the 11-nation European Space Agency will meet early next year to consider the question. But already some space leaders in West Germany and Italy are calling for an independent space station program. Indeed, France is developing plans for a small shuttle that could service such a station.

Both OTA and NASA talk grandly of moving beyond the space station, which will orbit about 300 miles out, to develop the geosynchronous orbit. (This is the orbit circling Earth 22,300 miles above the equator, where satellites travel at the same speed with which Earth rotates and thus remain more or less over a given spot on the planet's surface.) OTA and NASA talk of servicing satellites there and even of establishing at least temporary manned outposts.

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The geosynchronous orbit, however, is already crowded with communications and weather satellites. It has become as precious a resource, subject to international allocation, as is the band of radio frequencies. A special meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (ORB '85) will be held next year to arrange more equitable sharing. Thus, to speak blithely of the United States taking the lead in using a space station as a base for further development of the geosynchronous orbit ignores the very substantial interest the rest of the world has in that resource.

In criticizing NASA's plan to develop a specific type of space station, OTA basically wants a fresh, uninhibited review of national space policy before making such a commitment. Its main conclusion states that ''because the Nation does not have clearly formulated long-range goals and objectives for its civilian space activities, proceeding to realize the present NASA 'space station' concept is not likely to result in the facility most appropriate for advancing US interests into the second quarter-century of the Space Age.''

As possible goals, OTA suggests reduction of costs of space activities, more direct public involvement (especially in spaceflight), more international cooperation, and broader scientific exploration. Among specific programs aimed at such goals, it includes global natural-hazard warning systems, global direct-broadcast systems, and even lunar settlement.

It should be obvious that few such goals can be attained without the cooperation of at least some other nations. And it should be obvious that such cooperation can be gained only by treating other nations - especially Western European nations, Canada, and Japan - as partners, not merely helpers. It would be wise to reassess US space policy, as OTA advises. But this should take full account of the views of the United States's potential partners.

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