RUSSIA and the United States declared the era of East-West space rivalry to be officially ended when they signed their cooperative accord Sept 2. A new era of cooperation that could become a true partnership now begins.
It is clear that this is a major diplomatic breakthrough. But it is not yet clear how it will work out in practice.
The accord envisions a merger of Russia's manned space flight program with that of the US and its Canadian, European, and Japanese partners. Plans for Russia's next-generation MIR space station and the American-led Freedom space station program (which will be scaled down and renamed) are to yield to a new joint space station effort.
First, visits of American astronauts to MIR will be more extensive than already planned. Next, Russia would begin station assembly around 1997 by launching a new MIR-like module that astronauts and cosmonauts could visit. Finally, the US and its current partners would add other laboratory and habitation modules to build the complete station. The whole assembly could be finished by 2004.
That is what has been agreed to in principle. However, the details won't be available until November, and a specific agreement won't be signed until US and Russian officials meet again in Moscow at the end of the year. Meanwhile, the Clinton administration has some heavy lobbying to do with a skeptical Congress and equally skeptical international partners.
There are unanswered operational and technical questions, as well as important political and commercial questions. Will Russia's fragile democracy survive so that it can be a reliable long-term partner? How much can Russia realistically be expected to contribute? Russia's share of a joint station would likely run around $3 billion. It wants the US to pay half of that while it makes up the rest in hardware and launch services. Also, under the current agreement, the US would pay $100 million a year through 1997 for services such as use of MIR.
Russia's position is understandable given its economic problems. But critics wonder if a largely one-way flow of funds would amount to a subsidy of Russian space industry.
Such questions must be settled up front. If doubts linger, they will cloud the budding atmosphere of cooperation even if Congress and the other international partners are persuaded to go along with the Russian-American deal. This historic breakthrough in space flight relationships is too important to let that happen.