"There was no evolution in the U.S. position," said Jean Arets, head of international programs for the 13-member European Space Agency. "It is difficult to know where we go from here."
The original timetable for the manned station, which also involves Japan and Canada, called for all partners to agree by this summer on the role each would play in building and managing the project. But a major stumbling block arose in December when the United States asserted its right to use the station for military research, as well as to cast a decisive vote on the work to be carried out in the various parts of the space station.
The station's costitself an increasingly contentious issueis now an estimated $14 to $16 billion, with the United States putting up three-fourths of the total. The research component of the station is considerable, with experiments planned in such areas as materials processing under weightlessness, astronomy and Earth observation.
The base is expected to contain three laboratories, contributed by the United States, Western Europe and Japan, together with living quarters, power systems and instruments for gathering information about the solar system. Canada is expected to contribute robotic hardware to maintain the structure. The orbiting facility, which will accommodate teams of up to eight people for visits of about three months at a time, could also be used as a "space garage" for repairing satellites and as a place from which to launch probes to other parts of the solar system.
In their discussions with the United States, the other nations have expressed concern about being involved in a project that could become heavily associated with military experiments. ESA officials also have cautioned that giving the United States the right to veto proposals by other nations would allow it to stop commercial experiments that might place American industry at a competitive disadvantage.
The United States and the Europeans are scheduled to meet again early in April. Separate negotiating sessions with Canada and Japan are taking place this month.
Most observers believe that the obvious benefits of cooperation will force the participants into a compromise. "It is most unlikely we will see the negotiations broken off," said one official in West Germany's foreign ministry, which is taking an active part in the discussions. "Everyone would lose too much face."
One possible solution is to allow each nation (or, in the case of ESA, group of nations) to exercise jurisdiction over its part of the space station. Under such a system, ESA would have the right to control experiments in the Columbus laboratory that it is due to provide and the United States would be free to organize its own experiments, including work related to the administration's Strategic Defense Initiative, in its two modules.