Ronald Reagan and his legacy in space
President Ronald Reagan, a key leader in normalizing US-Russian relations
and strong enthusiast of space program, died Saturday, June 5, 2004, at
the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan played instrumental
role in forging cooperation between US and Russia, which ended the Cold
War and opened doors to international ventures in numerous fields of arts
and science, including an unprecedented effort to build a permanent human
outpost in the outer space.
cold of the Cold War
Ronald Reagan won presidency in 1980, at the height of the Cold War. During Reagans first term in office, the world witnessed further deterioration of relations between West and East, escalating arms race and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
As part of
his defense doctrine, President Reagan oversaw the development of the
most advanced weapons systems ever deployed by the US military, such as
MX ICBMs, Pershing II IRBMs, cruise missiles, strategic bombers and nuclear
submarines. The Soviet Union conducted similar modernization of its arsenals,
further stressing the already stagnating and inefficient state-run economy.
1983, Reagan initiated so-called Strategic Defense Initiative, SDI, better
known as Star Wars a wide-scale research and development effort
aimed to build an antimissile defense shield. The president and his supporters
believed that SDI would be capable of protecting the US from the Soviet
nuclear threat. However numerous critics argued that the system would
be vulnerable to space weapons and it could tip a shaky balance between
two super powers.
believe that Star Wars program also meant to outspend the Soviet Union,
thus bankrupting its economy. However the USSR never fully responded with
its own nationwide missile-defense program, resorting instead to more
economical "asymmetrical" approach. The Soviet ICBMs were upgraded
with new means of penetrating potential defense systems. The USSR also
maintained the capabilities to attack and destroy orbiting
satellites. Therefore, the SDIs contribution into collapse of
the Soviet economy is probably marginal, at best.
In the meantime, the Star Wars program itself faced numerous technical challenges, which raised many doubts about its validity. As Cold War tensions eased in the second half of the 1990s, the SDI program was scaled down and later evolved into the plans for a limited defense shield from a small-scale or accidental missile attack.
main focus on defense-related projects, President Reagan showed great
interest in NASAs space exploration program. He oversaw the introduction
of the Space Shuttle system in 1981 and then paid close attention to the
progress of the effort, regularly contacting Shuttle crews in orbit. On
July 4, 1982, the President and his wife traveled to Edwards Air Force
base to witness the departure of the brand-new Space Shuttle Challenger
from the manufacturing plant in California to its launch site in Florida.
The same day, Reagans greeted the crew of the Shuttle Columbia, which
landed there after STS-4 mission.
With the end of the Cold War, the space station project would evolve into the largest cooperative space enterprise between the US, Russia and a number of other countries.
In January 1986, Reagan had to console the nation in the wake of the Challenger disaster. Ironically, only days before, he was preparing to talk about the space program in his State of the Union Address and critics charged that NASA was under political pressure to launch the ill-fated mission to provide a backdrop for the speech.
the accident, Reagan reaffirmed his support for NASA, for the Space Shuttle
and the Space Station programs.
In 1985, soon after Ronald Reagan started his second term in office, quiet but dramatic changes had been taken place across the Atlantic. Following a string of aging leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev took power in Kremlin. Relatively young and pragmatic Communist party official, Gorbachev clearly realized the crisis of the Soviet economy, destructive results of the confrontation with the West and corrupting effects of the totalitarian rule on the Soviet people.
As soon as Gorbachev secured his post in Kremlin, he started political reforms at home and sought better relations abroad. Despite his famous anti-Communist rhetoric, Reagan agreed to a series of summits with Gorbachev, which eventually produced major treaties to limit wasteful arms race.
One of the institutions, which benefited from the improved relations between the US and USSR was the space program. The first agreement on cooperation in scientific and technical field signed in November 1985 was followed by the agreement on space cooperation signed in Moscow in April 1987. Although it was limited in its scope, the agreement paved the way for burgeoning cooperation between the US and Russia in the following years.
Reagan's legacy in space
Reagan's unrelenting enthusiasm about space exploration, his main legacy
in space program the permanent human outpost in the Earth orbit
faced continuous political and financial challenges. The first
Bush Administration and as well as the Clinton Administration worked hard
to preserve Reagans space policy and to expand cooperation with
the former Soviet Union. However, public support for the space program
continued to fade, while US-Russian relations had never fully overcome
ghosts of the Cold War.
As President Reagans body was laid to rest, the orbiting space stationan ultimate monument to his vision of logical human expansion into space faced uncertain future. In stark contrast to Reagans determination to continue conquest of space despite losses and failures, President George W. Bush, faced with the aftermath of another Shuttle accident, chose to sideline several decades of efforts in space for the sake of a poorly defined and technologically unsound plan to return to the Moon.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan accompanied by NASA astronauts watch Space Shuttle Columbia's landing at Edwards Air Force Base, California, at the conclusion of STS-4 mission on July 4, 1982.
The Soviet Pioneer missile stands next to the US Army's Pershing II missile in the museum at the heart of the US capital. Both weapons systems were eliminated as a result of a US-Soviet treaty signed by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Copyright © 2001 by Anatoly Zak
The US Army Pershing II missile (right) stands next to the Soviet weapons in the Moscow museum. Copyright © 2001 by Anatoly Zak