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Space Marriage With Risks

FOR Daniel Goldin, the Atlantis-Mir joining was "a wonderful dream come true." Like many other American and Russian space officials, the administrator of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) saluted what he called the "formal wedding" between the two national spaceflight programs. Instead of wasting assets in a futile rivalry, they now are melding them to form a stronger spaceflight capability.

However, like certain human nuptials, this orbital marriage is a partnership of convenience. Neither nation can afford to carry on manned spaceflight by itself. In fact, the United States can no longer afford to carry it with just the help of its traditional partners - Canada, Japan, and an increasingly reluctant Europe. Russia and the United States need each other if manned spaceflight is not to peter out entirely over the next few decades.

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This is a risky venture. They have bet the future of manned spaceflight on the international space station. Yet neither Russia nor the US can guarantee its end of that commitment. If either of them defaults, it probably will mean the end of manned spaceflight for an indefinite time. Neither Europe nor Japan would launch manned spaceflight programs on their own.

Russian space officials don't know what their budgets will be from year to year. Generally these are only about 17 percent of what they once were, and funds often arrive months late.

The $400 million that NASA is paying Russia for hardware and services related to their joint flight program through 2000 only partially meets Russia's need. President Boris Yeltsin promises continued funding. But his own political future is uncertain.

NASA also is on shaky funding ground. Although the Clinton administration and congressional science committees continue to support the space-station program, congressional critics annually try to kill it. The constant political wrangling and program reviews are unsettling.

Equally important, both NASA and the Russian space agency are scrimping on unmanned space science as they try to protect space-station funding. NASA has to cut something like $40 billion from previously projected spending through the year 2000, including shuttle operational costs. It expects to drop an additional 55,000 government and contractor jobs on top of previous cutbacks. That would bring the space-related work force back to its 1961 level. Many scientists are concerned that the continuing exploration of our solar system will be crippled. Some experts warn shuttle safety may be compromised, but NASA officials insist that flight safety has overriding priority.

The astronaut-cosmonaut teams made a hard technical job look simple when they linked their craft harmoniously in space. In fact, they do have the easier part of the new orbital marriage. It's the politicians and administrators who must exercise the tough love needed to make that union really work.

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