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Soviet Space Cooperation

Soviet Attitude Toward International Cooperation in Space *

* Prepared by Joseph G. Whelan, Senior Specialist in International Affairs, Senior Specialists Division, CRS.







A unique case revealing an ambivalent side of the Soviet attitude toward space cooperation was the disintegration of Kosmos 954 over Canada in January 1978.

Kosmos 954 was launched on September 18, 1977. The near 5-ton space vehicle was placed in a 150-mile high orbit. An ocean reconnaisance satellite, it was designed to cover the world's oceans from the Arctic to the Antarctic, track ship movements, and transmit by radio collected information to Soviet ground stations. Americans termed it a naval "spy satellite," designed to track the movements of the U.S. fleet. The craft was powered by a 1,000 pound nuclear reactor containing 100 pounds of uranium-235. In about mid-December 1977 the craft began to lose altitude; on January 24, 1978 it reentered the Earth's atmosphere. While most of it apparently burned up on reentry, some of the materials survived and crashed somewhere in the desolate, uninhabited Northwest Territories of Canada. A search for the nuclear remnants was mounted, and on January 30, 1978, the first positive identification of the debris was made. (85)

Cause of the Kosmos 954 failure was unclear. Speculation among specialists in Washington was that the onboard rocket engine normally used to propel the reactor to a higher orbit had failed, but that could not be confirmed. (86)

An official and authoritative Soviet explanation was made on February 4 when Academician Leonid Sedov, a leading Soviet space specialist, told a Tass interviewer:

On January 6 this year, for reasons not yet clear, a sudden depressurisation of the satellite took place beyond the zone of visibility of our facilities for tracking space objects. Inasmuch as the process of depressurisation was a fast one, it may be assumed that the satellite collided in flight with some other object of natural or artificial origin. As a result, the satellite's on-board systems went out of operation, it lost orientation and began uncontrollable descent. Repeated attempts to bring it back under control unfortunately produced no results. (87)

This explanation was not satisfactory for space specialists, and as late as April 25, Kenneth W. Gatland, space writter for the Christian Science Monitor, wrote from London, "What actually happened to the satellite is still a matter for conjecture." (88)

Whatever the cause, the effects were electrifying, and alarming. Concern focused on the onboard nuclear reactor and the danger it held for radioactive contamination. American and Soviet officials made great efforts to assuage anxieties stirred up by the incident. The initial Tass announcement on January 24 gave assurances of no danger by stressing that the nuclear device was "a small nuclear nonexplosive unit intended as an energy source for the instruments aboard," and that it "was designed in such a way as to be fully destroyed and burned in entering the dense layers of the atmosphere." 89 And U.S. officials attempted to convey the message that this "dramatic-sounding event" should not be the cause of major concern. (90)


The United States discovered the decaying Kosmos 954 on December 19. Official inquiries were made with the Soviets on January 12. During the next 12 days, until the disintegration of the satellite, the United States and the Soviet Union, in the words of The New York Times, "had joined in a secret cooperative effort aimed at minimizing possible radioactive contamination and averting public panic." (91)

But how close was this cooperation?

The chronology of events indicates that the Soviets had not been altogether forthcoming in this cooperative effort. It is clear that the United States had to take the initiative to find out what was happening to Kosmos 954 and to assay its dangers to the world; the Soviets remained silent until approached directly. This failure of notification led James Reston of The New York Times to conclude that the Soviets were "really not very helpful," and that Ambassador Anatoliy F. Dobrynin, upon being informed, gave merely general assurances of no danger. Assuming a defensive posture through out, Dobrynin provided critical information only when pressed. (92)

That the Soviets were indeed ambivalent, if not outright reluctant, in response to the American request for cooperation is apparent from these facts. Presidential National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski made the initial inquiry of Dobrynin on January 12. The Soviets replied on the 13th "with unusual swiftness, but without adequate detail," according to Murrey Marder, diplomatic correspondent of The Washington Post. A further inquiry on January 17 brought "more complete answers" on the 19th, according to informed sources. "They didn't give us a tremendous amount of information," this source said, but "we didn't ask for a lot." (93)

President Carter fleshed out these bare facts in an interview on January 27, 3 days after announcement of the Kosmos 954 mishap. The President was asked to explain if he was satisfied with the Soviet response when he asked for information and cooperation on the Kosmos 954 problem. The President gave this long, convoluted, but highly informative response:

That is hard to say. We had discovered that the satellite was having a problem back in December. I don't remember the exact day. I made the decision myself to contact the Soviets. We told them we were aware of the problem, asked them for any information about the satellite and told them unofficially that we would not try to capitalize on their misfortune in a propaganda way.

We wanted to be sure that the adequate preparation was made for the re-entry of the satellite into the atmosphere and we notified some of our key allies around the world who would have the capability both to monitor the progress of the satellite and also to deal with the radioactivity once it fell.

I had a difficult decision to make in how much publicity to bring to this satellite because it is almost impossible to let people know the facts without the threat of being exaggerated.

We didn't want to create exaggerated fears. We monitored the satellite constantly. We shared with the Soviets estimates of when it would come down. The exact point of the penetration of the atmosphere was not known until just an hour or two before it crashed because it was tumbling. And when a satellite of that kind enters the atmosphere, it can skip off and go several thousands of miles further then you have actually anticipated.

We knew that it would fall somewhere between just north of Hawaii, north-east of Hawaii, or the eastern side of Africa. And it was making a great circle route up above the point where it finally fell. That was just about the northern point.

The Soviets did tell us in general what kind of reactor it was. They told us that their best estimate was it would burn as it entered the atmosphere.

So I can't without going back and checking the exact language of their report to us; I can't say whether they gave us all the facts. But I think it was handled properly; certainly by us.

I don't know who else the Soviets notified. When I found it was going to hit Canada early that morning—I come over here quite early in the morning—I called the Prime Minister of Canada and talked to him on the phone.

We were pretty lucky in telling him where it was going into the atmosphere. We had it on radar. But in retrospect, it may be that the Soviets could have given us more information. I think they probably gave us about what we would have given them under a similar circumstance. (94)

That the Soviets were responsive there seems to be little doubt; but only to a point, and only after some goading.

Much the same can be said about the Canadian experience with the Russians in the cleanup operations. Mr. Erik B. Wang, Director of the Legal Operations Division of the Department of External Affairs, noted that the Canadian Government had appreciated the Soviet offer of assistance in locating, and if necessary, retrieving the remnants of Kosmos 954. But the offer came after the search operation had already begun. Moreover, Wang felt that insufficient data on the satellite's configuration had been received and that the transmittal of some data had been delayed. This reluctance to cooperate led Gerald L. Borrowman, the author of this cited commentary on Kosmos 954, to refer to the "minimal cooperation" the Soviets offered in the cleanup operation. (95)

The Soviets were equally reluctant to respond to Canada's claims for compensation under the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects. (96) The compensation issue was finally settled in November 1980. The Soviets agreed to pay $3million for claims resulting from Kosmos 954; the Canadians had sought $6 million.97 Thus, the case was closed, but only in its compensatory aspects, for Kosmos 954 opened up the whole international question of using nuclear reactors in satellites.


For reasons of traditional Soviet diplomatic behavior (for example, the inclination to maintain an adversarial relationship) and deeper Russian national characteristics (evident in their obsession with secrecy especially in military related matters), the Soviets may not have been as forthright in cooperation in the case of the Kosmos 954 incident as the United States would have wished. But this issue served the larger and useful purpose of internationalizing concern about orbiting nuclear powered satellites, considerations on which would require far-reaching Soviet participation. (98)

The need for such cooperation became quickly evident when in a press conference on January 29 President Carter urged the Soviet Union to conclude an agreement barring the use of nuclear-reactor powered satellites." The Soviets themselves, clearly concerned about safety in their use of nuclear reactors, began to seriously address this problem.100 And finally, under international pressure, led by Canada and backed by the United States and other countries, the matter was brought before the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. (1)

But efforts to bring space borne reactors under some form of international control have thus far not succeeded. At the United Nations, the United States has sought an international agreement on safety standards governing such reactors, notification of launch, and responsibility for cleanup in the event of an accident. The Soviets have argued that existing regulations, which have no agreed safety codes, are sufficient.

The issue was brought to the fore again on May 1, 1980, when the United States announced that the Soviets had launched a nuclear reactor naval reconnaissance satellite designated Kosmos 1176, the first since the ill-fated Kosmos 954 and termed a "twin" of that spacecraft. The launching was believed timed to observe the American fleet then operating in the Indian Ocean-Arabian Sea area (a record 37 ships) in the wake of the failure to liberate the American hostages in Iran. While no protest was lodged, the State Department, in an expression of "humanitarian concern," criticized the Soviet Union and pledged to take the matter up at the next meeting of the UNCOPUOS in June 1980. (2)



81. Antisatellites Issue Brief No. IB81123, p. 8.

82. Ibid., pp. 8-9. See also, Austin, Anthony. Brezhnev Hints He Wants Talks on Space Anns Curbs. The New York Times, Apr. 18, 1981, p. 20. For text of the Gromyko letter and the draft treaty on space, see, Moscow Tass in English, 1508, Aug. 11, 1981, in FBIS Daily Report: Soviet Union, vol. 3, Aug. 12, 1981: AA15-AA18.

83. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Hearings, NASA Authorization for Fiscal Year 1981, 1980, pt. 3, p. 1733.

84. Antisatellites Issue Brief No. IB81123, p. 9.

85. For general accounts of the incident, see, Lyons, Richard D. Soviet Spy Satellite with Atomic Reactor Breaks Up in Canada, Jan. 25, 1978, p. 1; O'Toole, Thomas. Soviet Satellite Bums Up Over Canada. The Washington Post, Jan. 25, 1978, p. Al; Southerland, Daniel. U.S. Minimizes Fall of Soviet Satellite. The Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 25, 1978, p. 1; Leitenberg, Milton. Don't Look Now But • • *: The Soviet Satellite Accident and Some Lessons from it. Commonweal, vol. 105. Sept. 15, 1978, pp. 583-588; and Cosmos 954: An Ugly Death. Time, Feb. 6, 1978:28-29.

86. The New York Times, Jan. 25, 1978, p. 6.

87. Moscow in English, 1345 GMT, Feb. 4, 1978, in FBIS Daily Report: Soviet Union, vol. 3, Feb. 6,1978, p. Ul.

88. Gatland, Kenneth W. Canada Puts Spotlight on Soviet Satellites. The Christian Science Monitor, Apr. 25, 1978, p. 6. Gatland recorded this explanation from the space department of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough near London: ". . . the expected separation of Cosmos 954 from its attached rocket stage and 'platform' did not take place last November, which implies that something had gone wrong much earlier than Academician Sedov suggests. This separation must take place before the satellite can be boosted into a higher parking orbit."

89. The New York Times, Jan. 25, 1978, p. 8.

90. The Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 25, 1978, p. 1.

91. The New York Times, Jan. 25, 1978, p. 1.

92. Reston, James. Moscow's Forgotten Missile. The New York Times, Feb. 8, 1978, p. A19.

93. Marder, Murrey. Diplomatic Fallout is Seen in Breakup of Soviet Satellite. The Washington

Post, Jan. 27, 1978, p. A18.

94. Cosmos 954 Incident. Spaceflight, vol. 20, May 1978:184.

95. Borrowman, Gerald L. In the Wake of Cosmos 954. Spaceflight, vol. 22, March 1980:128-129.

96. Ibid.

97. The Washington Post, Nov. 22, 1980, p. A20. For commentaries on the extent of this search effort, see, The New York Times, Apr. 2, 1978, p. 16, and Cosmos 954: The $10 Million Search. Flight International, vol. 113, May 27, 1978: 1643.

98 The Kosmos 954 incident provided a platform for editorial commentaries on space cooperation. The Christian Science Monitor concluded an editorial entitled, "Controlling Space Clutter": "The United Nations should give this issue ["effective international regulation of what is sent into space"] serious attention. The time is past for paying lip service to the need for a treaty to regulate use of near-Earth space. If the United States and the Soviet Union led the way, such a treaty probably could be obtained. The incident of the fallen reactor should give them more than enough incentive to do so." (Jan. 26, 1978, p. 24.) The Washington Post, in an editorial entitled, "The Orbiting Reactors," noted that "it surely is time for some serious thinking about what can be done when a satellite—or anything else left in orbit by a space mission—goes out of control." And it concluded with this plea for space cooperation in resolving such issues as ASAT's and errant satellites: "Without such cooperation the problems highlighted by the crash of Cosmos 954 are likely to be with us for a long time." (Feb. 2, 1978, p. A18.)

99. Asked whether he would try to dissuade the Soviets from mounting reactors in space vehicles, the President replied: "Yes certainly in earth orbit. I think that this is something we should explore. There are two factors, though. One is to try to evolve a sure-fire safety requirement that would . . . prevent a recurrence of any atomic active material reaching the earth or the atmosphere where human beings might breathe it. If we cannot evolve those fail-safe methods, . . . [then] I think there ought to be a total prohibition against earth-orbiting satellites." (The New York Times, Jan. 31, 1978, p. 1.)

100. while still intending to use nuclear reactors in their satellites, the Soviets, nonetheless, had under consideration plans for destroying them in space. In an interview in February during a visit to Washington, Soviet Academician Yevgeni Federov said: "There is the possibility that we could destroy such a satellite in the future. Such a satellite could be blown up after it has served its purpose in space." Federov, Director of the Institute of Applied Geophysics in Moscow and a member of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, made it clear, however, that the Soviet Union would continue launching satellites with nuclear reactors aboard. He noted that they had at least two new types under development: one was designed to relay television programs directly across the Soviet Union; the other was a meteorological satellite designed to carry radar to map storms. Federov indicated that "lessons" could be learned from the Kosmos 954 mishap. Besides equipping such satellites with explosive devices, he said, backup engines could be installed in nuclear-powered satellites to lift them in higher orbits where they would stay for hundreds of years. "We must investigate the possibility to put this cosmic apparat (satellite) after it has served its purpose out of its low earth orbit to a safer altitude," he said. Federov seemed to downplay the reaction to the Kosmos 954 accident, citing the wide use of nuclear power on ships and the incidents of accidents in the past. He did not doubt that "there is danger but the big noise that was made about one satellite is not based on scientific and technical fact." (O'Toole, Thomas. Soviets Will Continue to Use A-Satellites. The Washington Post, Feb. 20, 1978, p. A4.)

The Soviets went to great pains to explain away the accident and downplay the danger it posed. See, for example, Knorre, Elena. Nuclear Energy for Space Exploration. New Times ( Moscow), No. 7, Feb. 1978: 21-22. In this fairly technical article, Knorre explains the many areas in space exploration where nuclear energy is used, citing American as well as Soviet work in the field.

In a highly politicized article in International Affairs, Federov ridiculed the U.S. reaction and the "panic" that ensued as evidenced by demands to ban nuclear-powered spacecraft from outer space. Much damage was done to international cooperation, he said, "by the attempts of reactionary circles in Western countries to use U.N. bodies to stoke up anti-Soviet feeling and spread allegations about a 'threat' from the Soviet Union, and for other similar purposes." Federov also downplayed the probabilities of injury from such an accident. He explained the technique of dispatching the satellite to a higher orbit where it would stay "for several thousand years." Any technical device may fail, he said "and a certain amount of risk is always there. But in this particular case it is far smaller than the probability of a car accident or an air crash." (Federov, Y. The Use of Outer Space and Interests of Nations. International Affairs [ Moscow], No. 7, July 1978: 12-20.

101. See the Federov article as an example of Soviet defensiveness on this issue. For commentary on Soviet agreement to participate in a U.N. technical study on safety measures associated with nuclear-powered spacecraft and U.S. plans to raise the question in the UNCOPUOS's legal sub-committee, see, Covault, Craig, Nuclear-Powered Spacecraft Study Set. Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 109, Aug. 7, 1978: 44-56.

2. Lyons, Richard D. Soviet Launches a Spy Satellite to Track U.S. Ships. The New York Times, May 2, 1980, p. A3. Getler, Michael. Soviets Again Launch Reconnaissance Satellite Equipped with A-Reactor. The Washington Post, May 2, 1980, p. A16; and the Washington Post, May 3, 1980, p. A10.

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