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Ronald Reagan and his legacy in space

Former US President Ronald Reagan, a key leader in normalizing US-Russian relations and strong enthusiast of space program, died Saturday, June 5, 2004, at age 93.

Along with 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.

In the cold of the Cold War

Ronald Reagan won presidency in 1980, at the height of the Cold War. During Reagan’s 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.

In March 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.

Some analysts 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 SDI’s 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.

Civilian space program

Despite his main focus on defense-related projects, President Reagan showed great interest in NASA’s 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.

In January 1984, during his State of the Union address, President Reagan gave official green light to the ambitious project, which envisioned permanently manned space station by 1991. Reagan also invited US allies to take part in the program.

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.

Following the accident, Reagan reaffirmed his support for NASA, for the Space Shuttle and the Space Station programs.

From foes to allies

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

Despite Ronald 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 Reagan’s 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 Reagan’s body was laid to rest, the orbiting space station—an ultimate monument to his vision of logical human expansion into space – faced uncertain future. In stark contrast to Reagan’s 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