The American space program is in better shape today than at any point since the
Apollo 11 Moon landing 25 years ago. With the decision to include Russia in the
international space station partnership, confirmed on Thursday by Vice President
Gore and Russian Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, NASA's time of troubles has past.
There is every reason to expect that the House of Representatives, which nearly
canceled the space station a year ago, will approve the project by a comfortable
margin when it votes this coming Wednesday.
What accounts for this remarkable turnabout? Over the past five years, NASA has
been the focus of mounting criticism -- increasing scorned as an agency whose time
had past. Although technical failures and managerial shortcomings were the
proximate problem, NASA's fundamental quandary was far more fundamental. The
space race was perhaps the quintessential manifestation of the Cold War, and with
the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, NASA's very reason
for being was called into question.
President Kennedy confronted a Soviet adversary with a race to the Moon, and
America won this competition. President Clinton entered office committed to
transforming our relationship with Russia to one of partnership, building a
cooperative framework in which both countries can benefit. Four decades of Cold
War consolidated a vast superstructure of adversarial institutions, such as NATO
and various arms control arrangements, which will take years to transform.
But just as cooperation between France and Britain on the Concord supersonic
transport paved the way for British integration into the European Community,
cooperation on the space station will pave the way for integration of Russia into the
community of industrial democracies.
This is not to say that the path ahead will be easy. I recently spent ten days in
Moscow, and saw first-hand many of the difficulties that lie ahead. While there is
no reason to doubt the feasibility of the joint station effort, many obstacles remain.
The primary Russian contractor on the space station, NPO Energia, appears to
remain committed to a traditional Soviet-ear management style, with the power of
the General Designers maintained by excluding outside supervision. In this way,
pet projects could be continued (exemplified by the multitudinous Soviet Lunar
landing projects of the 1960s), even in the face of the opposition of higher officials,
who would remain unaware that their orders had been contravened.
Inadequate supervision ("failure to penetrate the contractor" in NASA parlance)
contributed to the initial problems with the Hubble Space Telescope. More recently,
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory had an inadequate understanding of the failed
Mars Observer spacecraft built for it by Martin Marietta. With traditional Soviet-style management culture so intensely devoted to avoiding penetration by external
agencies, similar problems may be anticipated on the space station.
The seeming deterioration at the Institute for Space Research (IKI), formerly
headed by Roald Sagdeev, is astonishing. Offices are unlit, and the hallways are
lit by only the barest minimum of lights needed to find ones way. While IKI was
never a beehive of activity, it now appears largely deserted. Given these conditions,
the recent decision to delay the launch of a robotic Mars probe by two years, from
1994 to 1996, must come as no surprise.
Similarly, the Mir space station mission control center is only activated during
those periods of time when the ground center is in contact with Mir. When Mir is
not in direct communications with the ground, the control center is closed up and
the personnel disperse to their other renumerative occupations in the informal
All of this would be very disturbing if viewed as symptoms of uncontrolled
institutional disintegration. Fortunately, these are the results of an intentional and
well conceived policy which has been systematically implemented throughout large
sectors of Russian society. Beginning last year, the core skilled and professional
personnel at major aerospace institutions were encouraged to find additional means
of income in entrepreneurial activities, and were offered the use of the institutions
facilities to this end. Today, much of the workforce has at least two jobs: an official
position, which provides institutional identity but not much money, and a job in the
informal sector which provides the bulk of their income.
Thus many of the large Soviet-era institutions have transformed themselves into
"virtual organizations" -- the latest Western management craze. They are able to
call upon a large pool of talented personnel if the need or opportunity arises,
without having to support the full cost of these personnel.
The primary challenge facing these institutions is the fact that raw material and
energy prices have been decontrolled, and risen to world market prices. During the
Soviet era, prices were kept artificially low, and these institutions and their
facilities are predicated on cheap raw materials, energy and electricity. The lights
are out at IKI because they can't pay their electric bill, a not uncommon
The primary challenge facing joint Russian-American projects is the declining
purchasing power of the dollar. This has been obscured by the continuing and
inexorable decline of the dollar-ruble exchange rate, which as with many other
Russian statistics fails to capture the most important aspect of the situation.
Though the declining value of the dollar is widely appreciated in Moscow, there
appears to be an almost complete unawareness of this development in Washington.
All of the discussions of joint projects over the past several years have been
predicated on the temporary undervaluation of the ruble relative to the dollar,
which rendered Russia an extraordinarily inexpensive labor market. While the
precise sources of the decline of the dollar remain obscure, it is quite clear that
over the past year the purchasing power of the dollar in Russia has declined by at
least 50% -- two dollars are required today to purchase what one dollar would have
brought a year ago. There was every reason to anticipate that the temporary over-valuation of the dollar in Russia would eventually subside, but it was not widely
anticipated that the devaluation of the dollar would come so soon or on such a
Commercial and other joint projects which seemed quite attractive a year ago must
now seem less certain. The just-concluded space station negotiations reportedly were
complicated by Russia's demand that the $400 million payment for joint space
activities agreed to last year be doubled to $800 million. Further requests for more
money for less work may be anticipated as the Russian economy continues to
These challenges will pose unique difficulties in the years ahead. But the future of the American space program, and the future of our relations with Russia, depend on meeting these challenges. Surely the agency that first landed humans on the Moon is adequate to this task.
1. John Pike is the Director of the Space Policy Project of the Federation of
American Scientists, in Washington, DC.