The West German government agreed today to contribute $900 million over the next decade to participate in an American-led program to set up a permanently staffed space station.
The decision came in response to President Reagan's appeal, made a year ago, for Europe, Japan and Canada to join the United States in building and funding the $8 billion Columbus space station project. Italy, France and Britain are expected to announce their intentions by the end of the month.
If all goes according to plan, the laboratory and observation craft would be launched into space in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America.
Heinz Riesenhuber, West Germany's minister for research and technology, said that the planned cooperation in space between Europe and the United States carried great political and economic significance for transatlantic relations.
He said that during a review phase over the next two years, precise and detailed contracts must be negotiated with the United States to ensure that European countries in the program earn a fair return on their investments.
The Bonn government sees its participation in the venture as an important way of gaining access to space-based technology as well as experience in developing orbiting stations that could reap commercial benefits.
U.S. restrictions on the transfer of technology, ostensibly to prevent the Soviet Union from acquiring sensitive goods or information from third countries, have increasingly irked the European allies, who fear that such limits are hindering development of their own high technology sectors.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government sees the prospect of close cooperation on the space station as a way to obligate the United States to share complete access to important space research data.
West German and Italian companies are planning to develop a special laboratory module that would plug into the main body of the U.S.-built spacecraft. It would be used by scientists to conduct experiments in the zero gravity and vacuum conditions of space. Several drug and manufacturing companies here have expressed keen interest in the commercial possibilities of such experiments.
Besides the potential economic dividends, the Kohl government sees the project as an effective way to fortify bonds within the western alliance.
A ministerial report said the kind of cooperation embodied in the space station program "should be welcomed in West Germany not just for technical and economic reasons, but for political ones, as a transatlantic connecting link."
Nonetheless, the venture has evoked some controversy. Some scientists are skeptical about the need for a staffed space probe and contend that robots could conduct more efficiently the kind of work envisioned in the space station.
In addition, Europe's previous involvement in a U.S. space project was seen as less than successful. European countries spent $750 million in 1973 to underwrite Spacelab, yet failed to win much in the way of research benefits.
Another argument against European cooperation with the U.S. program is that it exhausts precious money that some politicians say should be earmarked exclusively for projects that foster Europe's own capabilities in space.
Riesenhuber said today that Bonn would contribute nearly $500 million to development of a more powerful and versatile Ariane rocket, built mainly by France, to make Europe more independent in space travel by the 1990s. But Riensehuber admitted that West Germany would not be able to afford a major investment in the French space shuttle project known as "Hermes."
He said the concept of a European space shuttle was "very interesting" but that Bonn's involvement in the space station and an upgraded Ariane rocket precluded participation in a third costly space program.