The Soviets have grabbed the ball of international cooperation in space at a time when the American space program has fumbled. On Friday they invited the United Nations to establish a world space organization.
They see an opportunity to exercise leadership with Western nations and third world countries, whose cooperative space programs with the United States are in limbo. They also realize they have much to gain by sharing costs and pooling skills with foreign partners. So they're willing to shed their former secrecy and invite the world to join them in nonmilitary space activity.
They seek the same values the US itself has sought through extensive international participation in its own space program. NASA's planned space station, in particular, relies on foreign partners for needed skills and for a third of its cost.
And the US Congress last year urged President Reagan to invite all nations to join in an International Space Year (ISY) of scientific exploration of Earth and the Solar System beginning in 1992.
The Soviets' proposal couples the new openness of their civilian space program with propaganda against the US Strategic Defense Initiative.
Premier Nikolai I. Ryzhkov emphasized the propaganda theme in his formal letter of invitation to UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar Friday. He contrasted what the Soviets are calling their ``Star Peace'' program with what he dubbed ``the insane Star Wars plans'' of the United States.
But there's more than propaganda to the Soviets' proposal. They have a new agency to manage their civilian program separately from their military space activities. They court Western nations as well as those of their own bloc. And they are building on the widely-hailed success of the international Halley mission in which Western Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union sent spacecraft to inspect the famous comet.
Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, says the quality of Soviet cooperation during the Halley project impressed all who took part. Now, he adds, the Soviets have learned that ``international cooperation in space is a terrific tool of national policy.''
Premier Ryzhkov specifically cited the Halley program in his letter. He also renewed his country's offer to launch foreign satellites.
Last fall, former NASA administrator James E. Beggs warned that the Soviets ``will be seeking to attract the international parties who have traditionally worked with us into an orbit with them . . . in the pursuit of [Soviet] goals in space.''
Commenting on this concern, Ray Williamson of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, who has studied international space prospects, says he doesn't think the Europeans and the Japanese ``will go strongly with the Soviets.'' He explains: ``It's hard for Western countries to work with them [the Soviets] when technology transfer is involved. Even scientific data sharing can be tough.'' But Mr. Williamson also warns that delays in getting the shuttle flying and other difficulties in working with the US could make Europe and Japan ``think of what opportunities there are with the Soviets.''
Technology transfer is an obstacle to free US-Soviet cooperation as well. The recent report of the President's National Commission on Space recommends that ``selective cooperation should be actively sought with the Soviet Union.'' But it warns that ``US-Soviet projects should be specifically designed to avoid ill-advised technology transfer.'' Ryzhkov proposes a three-stage effort for nations interested in a world space organization. First, an international conference would meet in 1990 to set up the new agency and lay out its agenda. Then agency members would begin to carry out modest joint projects. Finally, he suggests that the group could be ready by the year 2000 to undertake ``major projects on joint construction of spacecraft, including orbital stations . . . and interplanetary manned spaceships.''