Two months after President Bush announced that the United States would "seek an exploratory dialogue" with Europe, the Soviet Union and other nations about increasing space cooperation, NASA has backed out of a U.S.-French experiment that was to fly aboard a 1994 Soviet Mars mission.
The action, which officials blamed on lack of money, has upset scientists working on the mission here and abroad and has rekindled old charges that the United States treats its international space science partners shabbily.
The French originally planned to provide the instrument -- designed to measure the mineral content of the Mars surface -- on their own, scientists said. But about 18 months ago, NASA planetary officials suggested to the Soviets that they fly a U.S. version instead. The American instrument had recently been "kicked off" a U.S. Mars mission, after it was scaled down for lack of money.
The French resisted but, in early 1989, were persuaded by the Soviets to enter a joint arrangement with the Americans in which scientists from both countries would manage the $50 million Omega/VIMS project, combining hardware from both instruments. The American version was VIMS (Visual Infrared Mapping Spectrometer); the French called theirs Omega.
"Now NASA has pulled the rug out from under both the French and the Russians," said Louis D. Friedman, of the California-based Planetary Society, which is heavily involved in the unmanned Soviet Mars mission.
The American decision was revealed in a June 5 letter from Lennard A. Fisk, NASA's chief scientist, to Jacques Breton, science director of the French space agency, the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES).
Citing "the general constraints currently being imposed on U.S. government spending," Fisk said, "I appreciate and very much regret the difficult position in which this action places all of us" regarding completion of "this high-priority science experiment."
He said if the Soviet launch date slips to 1996, "we would be prepared to explore options" for reviving cooperation. Friedman called this "unwarranted speculation that perhaps the Soviets should delay their mission to accommodate American 'talk.' "
Space scientists have charged in the past that the United States treats partners in a "high-handed," ill-mannered fashion. Last summer, for example, European space officials were angered when NASA managers considered changes in the planned space station without consulting its international partners. A similar flap occurred when the United States pulled out of the Europeans' Ulysses mission to study the sun, a revised version of which is set for launch in October.
In the case of Omega/VIMS, Lynn Cline of NASA's international relations office acknowledged that French space officials "clearly are disappointed. But they've indicated they understand our budget situation."
As for charges of U.S. arrogance, she added, "I've seen us carry out hundreds of international arrangements. . . . I think the record is really in our favor."
"This is a very delicate matter," said a CNES scientist involved with Omega/VIMS. "Officially we are silent. We believe we can salvage some part of the science objective." But the French science program, also strapped for funds, may not come up with the few million extra dollars needed, he said.