Global Alliances Challenge U.S. in Commercial Race for Space

Article excerpt

The U.S.-Soviet space rivalry has been replaced by multinational co-operation -- and competition. European and Asian space programs are gaining momentum, threatening America's preeminence in space.

During the Cold War, while the United States and the Soviet union were locked in a bitter struggle for celestial dominance, the rest of the world did little more than watch. As the superpowers raced ahead in space technology, Europe and Asia seemed destined for second-class status in orbit.

No longer. Outer space has become crowded in recent years as a growing number of nations undertake increasingly ambitious projects. Last year, Japan and India joined the ranks of major space powers as each nation successfully launched rockets able to carry satellites weighing more than a ton -- a capability previously limited to the United States, Russia, China and the European Space Agency, a consortium of 14 governments.

Numerous other nations have made the giant leap into space. Israel and South Korea have built and launched small satellites. Canada and Australia have well-developed satellite programs, although they lack their own launch apparatuses. Even human space flight, a field long dominated by the United States and Russia, is attracting broader international interest. China is preparing to place into orbit a two-man capsule by the end of the decade. Europe and Japan, longtime participants in U.S.-led manned projects, may perform their own manned space missions early in the next century.

The Cold War space race has yielded to an era of international cooperation -- notably in the joint development of a space station by the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan - but international rivalries in space are hardly a thing of the past. Space programs still carry powerful implications for the national prestige and military strength of the countries that implement them. Japan's development of advanced rockets, for example, has opened the way for that country to build and launch spy satellites -- a priority for Japanese officials eager to monitor No nuclear program.

Moreover, as international commercial satellite and rocket markets expand -- and as visionaries contemplate mining natural resources on the moon or orbiting tourists about the Earth -- governments and industries alike have scrambled for a share of space. "It makes sense to cooperate in scientific research and some technical development, because there are more problems and opportunities than any one country can get its arms completely around," says Thomas F. Rogers, president of the Space Transportation Association, a U.S. industry group. "However, once you start talking about investment, in which you're looking for a profitable return, then competition is the path to pursue."

Even in collaborative space projects, tensions among nations are readily apparent. European and Japanese officials have long complained about the uncertainties of the U.S. budget process, which requires expenditures to be approved each year (space budgets in Europe and Japan have greater stability, with some projects receiving approval for five-year periods). Several times, Congress has killed joint U.S.-European space projects; in 1993, for example, an unmanned NASA probe aimed at gathering data on comets was cancelled, forcing Europe to scrap plans to contribute equipment for the mission. Moreover, the space station, which already has consumed more than $850 million in European funds, has come under repeated assault from congressional budget cutters. As Russia's political and economic turmoil casts doubt on that nation's reliability, European officials are stressing selfreliance, placing more emphasis on space exploration projects, such as a planned probe to Mercury, that don't rely on U.S. or Russian technology.

Within Europe itself, international cooperation has turned out to be a tricky endeavor. France, Germany and Italy are the most active participants in the European Space Agency. …