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Jewish World Review April 10, 2000/ 5 Nissan, 5760

Charles Krauthammer

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Our Russian payload -- IN THE EARLY 1970S, we thought it a splendid idea to symbolize physically our newfound friendship with the Soviets. It is still on view today at Washington's Air and Space Museum: the Apollo-Soyuz spaceships, locked forever in ungainly embrace.

You know how much good that symbolism did. It was followed shortly afterward by Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, the SS-20 crisis and some of the worst days of the Cold War.

o matter. Two decades later, we were back at it. With the fall of the Soviet Union, we and the Russians were feeling even friendlier. So we cast about for a more enduring symbol than the one-night stand of Apollo-Soyuz. We would have ourselves a long-term relationship. They would join us in building the International Space Station. It would save us money, we thought. It would keep their scientists occupied and out of such mischief as building rockets for Iran. And it would contribute to the larger goal of tying Russia to the West.

We never learn, do we? It is six years later and Russian delays on their part of the space station have now cost the United States about $3 billion. Of the two pieces of the space station already launched (in 1998), the Russian piece--built entirely with American money--is in such poor repair that we have an extra shuttle flight going up April 24 to service it. The third piece is the Zvezda service module, without which there can be no space station. It is now two years overdue from Russia. The whole immense ISS project with its huge budget and elaborate timetable is on indefinite hold while we wait. Indeed, the delay has become so crippling that NASA began a crash program to build a substitute for the Zvezda in case it never goes up.

What then, amid all this delay and discombobulation, are the Russians doing in space? Reviving Mir. They just sent two astronauts back into orbit on Tuesday to reoccupy the abandoned and obsolete Mir space station. It was supposed to have received an honorable burial in the Pacific Ocean so the Russians could concentrate their scarce space resources on the ISS.

They have apparently changed their minds. Why? Pride. Having lost nearly all the other trappings of superpowerhood, they prefer not to crash their most enduring space achievement into the ocean. There are also persistent reports, according to UPI, that the Chinese might lease Mir for the manned space program that they have been preparing for many years.

Fine. Russia wants Mir. No problem--except for our idiotic ISS marriage. Russia is supposed to provide two Soyuz modules this year for ferrying astronauts to the ISS. It is also supposed to provide three Progress fuel tankers to keep the ISS from falling out of the sky. (Increased sunspot activity has made the need urgent.)

The Russians have already canceled one of the three tanker flights. If they keep Mir alive, they might have to divert the others. Mir, too, needs astronauts and fuel. NASA is privately furious. But the fury must remain private, lest we be seen as bad guys for urging the Russians to scuttle their space pride and joy. How did we get ourselves into this position? It is precisely the same position we've maneuvered ourselves into regarding the Russian economy. We became the villains for forcing capitalism and IMF austerity upon them.

Why? If the Russians want to wreck their economy, who are we to stand in their way? Why make ourselves the fall guy for their failure? Similarly, in space. If the Russians want to spend their resources on a Yugo, rather than a Lexus, who are we to stop them? Let them patch up their wreck of a space station, and let's get on with building ours. Our ISS alliance with the Russians is killing the space station, costing NASA billions it can ill afford, causing resentment among Russians (who see us conspiring to kill their space station), and has done nothing to arrest Russian missile proliferation to places such as Iran.

This is absurd. We pour money into the Russian space program and, when we insist on conditions and results, we get a Russian Foreign Ministry official berating our "pseudo-imperial approach."

We have a talent for taking ourselves hostage when it comes to Russia. Here is a space partnership that will not deliver the goods. And yet we insist on its indispensability.

Time to tell the Russians to go their own way in space. Darva got an annulment. Why can't we?

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