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Russia: Analysis From Washington---The New Politics Of Space

Washington, 22 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Problems on the Russian space station Mir and the success of the U.S. Pathfinder mission to Mars have provoked reactions on earth which highlight not only how far removed the world now is from the "space race" of the Cold War era but also how political the exploration of the heavens remains.

While some commentators and politicians in both countries have viewed the contrast between Pathfinder's success and Mir's failures in the old way, as somehow symbolic of American victory and Russian humiliation, the overwhelming majority have adopted a new perspective.

They have presented the Mars mission as the triumph of the human race rather than a victory for one country and to consider the problems of Mir as a a series of technical misfortunes rather than a national failure by the deeply-troubled Russian space program.

In part, this viewpoint simply reflects the growing cooperation between the United States, Russia and other countries in the exploration of space. After all, many countries -- including Russia -- contributed to Pathfinder's success. And an American astronaut is currently serving on Mir, just as other American scientists have done before.

But to a larger extent, this new perspective reflects political calculations at the highest levels in both Washington and Moscow about what space can and should mean on earth.

That larger fact came into sharp focus last week when the continuing problems on Mir became a political problem in Washington.

After several weeks during which his spokesmen played down the Mir's obvious problems U.S. President Bill Clinton last week asked for regular briefings on the Mir. He then told reporters that he did not yet see any reason for recalling the American astronaut now on board Mir or for modifying Russian-American cooperation in space.

Administration officials indicated that Clinton was prepared to insist on the immediate return of astronaut Michael Foale if it appeared his life was in any danger, but both they and commentators over the weekend stressed that the American president was carefully balancing the risks and rewards of taking that or any other larger step.

If Clinton asks that the Russians arrange for Foale's rapid return to earth, such a request would likely offend many Russians as an indication of American distrust in their competence. And that in turn could cast a shadow not only over future Russian-American cooperation in space but over East-West cooperation more generally.

But if Clinton fails to call for the return of Foale under these circumstances and something goes tragically wrong on the Russian spaceship, then the American president would face several other and potentially even more serious political problems.

On the one hand, his own political standing and that of his vice president, Al Gore, who is a champion of Russian-American space cooperation might be put at risk.

Numerous American newspapers have already quoted the American astronaut now on Mir as saying that his space travel in the Russian ship is like "a very dirty and grimy camping trip in an old car." And at least one major American newspaper, the Boston Globe, on Friday called for the return of the American astronaut and for shutting down the aging Mir vehicle.

And on the other, a tragedy on the Russian space vehicle could have dramatic consequences for the space programs of all countries. A disaster on Mir would almost certainly lead to a suspension of the cash-strapped Russian space program.

But it would also have an impact on the American space program. First, any disaster in space would prompt some in Congress and elsewhere to ask questions about the value of space exploration. Second, even the prospect of a disaster has led some to repeat earlier suggestions that the future of space exploration belongs to robots rather than Russians or Americans.

And third, it would throw the American space effort into disorder because the American program is now heavily dependent on cooperation with Russia for the planned construction of an international space station in 1999.

For all these reasons, space remains just as politicized as it ever was, even if the politics are now very different than they were during the Cold War.