America and Russia, long competitors in space exploration, are now partners in
space development. On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing,
America's great victory in the space race, the House of Representatives has
endorsed the Clinton Administration's vision of partnership with Russia in building
an international space station.
The future of the American space program now depends on the future of the
Russian space program, and Russia itself. Unfortunately, the path ahead will not
be easy. I recently spent ten days in Moscow, and saw first-hand many of these
The apparent deterioration at the Institute for Space Research (IKI), formerly
headed by noted scientist Roald Sagdeev, is astonishing. Offices are unlit, and the
hallways are lit by only the barest minimum of lights needed to find ones way.
This cavernous structure has the air of an abandoned ship, with a few remaining
passengers a crew reluctant to depart their sinking vessel. While the Institute was
never a beehive of activity (in common with most large agencies), 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.
The Mir space station mission control center is only activated during those periods
when the ground center is in contact with Mir. As soon as contact is lost, the
control center is closed up and the personnel immediately scatter, returning to their
primary employment -- the moon-lighting jobs on the side which are their primary
source of income.
At first glance, all of this would seem disturbingly symptomatic of uncontrolled
institutional disintegration, calling into doubt the ability of the Russians to fulfill
their commitments to the space station partnership.
Fortunately, these are the results of an intentional 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 outside sources of income. Today, much of the workforce
has at least two jobs: an official position, which provides institutional identity but
not much money, and one or more entrepreneurial jobs which provide the bulk of
Russians from all walks of life are now charged with an entrepreneurial
enthusiasm which must be seen to be believed. Although I went to Russia to
discuss policy, few discussions concluded without a review of immediate money-making opportunities, all of which were interesting, and some of which were quite
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.
But the transformation to modern business practices remains dangerously
incomplete. The primary Russian contractor on the space station, NPO Energia, is
making laudable progress toward privatization. But upper management remains
committed to the traditional Soviet-era management style of secrecy and exclusion
of outside supervision. Managers at Energia and other Russian aerospace companies
appear eager to join the world marketplace, but they have yet to learn that private
ownership is but one element of contemporary economic competitiveness. Modern
computer networks are breaking down authoritarian structures in American
companies, and the ultimate success of Russian reform will depend on emulating
this trend toward openness.
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. As long as traditional
Soviet-style managers remain so intensely devoted to avoiding oversight by external
agencies, similar problems appear inevitable on the space station.
Another 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 the
Space Institute (and elsewhere) because they can't pay their electric bill, a not
But energy prices are not the only ones which are approaching world levels.
Today the dollar buys nearly 2,000 rubles, whereas a year ago it bought fewer than
1,500 rubles. Thus I was startled to learn that hiring a car and driver for a day
would cost not the $25 of a year ago, but $45. I was initially wary that
enterprising Muscovites were trying to take advantage of someone with more
dollars than sense, I soon discovered to my surprise that indeed, the dollar today
is worth only half what it was a year ago.
The battered Russian economy is recovering. Oranges are sold on every street
corner, and consumed by one and all. I was repeatedly stuck in heroic traffic jams
near the Kremlin, which put the gridlock of mid-town Manhattan to shame. The
Space Research Institute may be largely abandoned, but the hold-outs are all
coming to work in cars than pack its diminutive parking lot.
While there was every reason to hope that the temporary over-valuation of the
dollar in Russia would eventually subside, there appears to have been little
anticipation that the devaluation of the dollar would come so soon or on such a
scale. The declining purchasing power of the dollar 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
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.
Upon my return I queried dozens of officials throughout the government, almost all
of whom were entirely oblivious to this momentous development.
Discussions of joint projects over the past several years were predicated on the
temporary undervaluation of the ruble relative to the dollar, which rendered Russia
an extraordinarily inexpensive labor market. 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 recover.
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.
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 Concorde 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.
1. John Pike is the Director of the Space Policy Project of the Federation of
American Scientists, in Washington, DC.