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Russia's Space Program: Running On Empty
Buran safing area
Buran safing area with LC 1 launch pad in the distance.
Credit: © Mark Wade
by James Oberg
Reprinted by permission
Originally appeared in SPECTRUM Magazine - December 1995
The Russian space industry is reorganizing itself and has big plans for the future -- but even with austerity measures, it needs a major influx of funds not to starve first
The would-be observer of Russia's space program today, the barrage of confusing claims from experts both inside and outside the country can easily be overwhelming. Apparently, bankruptcy and collapse are imminent: the two top Russian officials, one civilian and one military, have each stated that the nation's space activity is in crisis and might even be forced to a standstill. Yet the industry still produces hardware, the rockets still fly, their ground controllers still operate distant spacecraft, and the cosmonauts aboard Mir still maintain their watch on orbit. In fact, the Russian space infrastructure has been pronounced robust and the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site "superb" (in the words of U.S. Vice President Al Gore). How can these opposites be reconciled?
A sound appraisal of the current status and likely future of the Russian space industry is urgently needed as Moscow and Washington, D.C., switch from being adversaries to being allies. Military and commercial arrangements between the two nations-as well as between Russia and Europe-range from the sale of space reactors, rocket engines, and launch services to the supply of crucial modules for the International Space Station. With Russia irrevocably in the critical path for this multinational superproject, the long-term stability of the nation's space program has profound implications for the health of the U.S., if not the Western, space industry.
Assessing the prospects of the Russian space industry entails more than a catalog of people and machinery. The intentions of politicians-present and to come-could be pivotal. As Moscow's space policy since the 1950s shows, the influence of politics can be whimsical, petty, and short-sighted as well as pragmatic.
Even so, in true engineering analytical style, it is possible to "bound the problem." It is possible to map out what hardware and human resources within the country are devoted to space activities, and what level of care and feeding those activities require to be preserved or even expanded. As part of the necessary research, IEEE Spectrum visited most of Russia's key space facilities last March.
This combination of research and analysis has revealed that at current levels of support, Russia's present output of space activities is not sustainable. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the space program has been coasting on strategic reserves, winding down from earlier energy levels, cannibalizing the last redundant equipment-in short, "eating the seed corn." Nonetheless, Russian space officials express the hope that such measures can bridge the gap until the governmental and economic crises are over and funding becomes healthier.
As revealed by sources unavailable before the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian space industry was never the monolith of centralized planning that many U.S. space officials of the 1950s and `60s had feared. Instead, it was a hodge-podge of competing-even antagonistic-power centers that made alliances, engaged in personal squabbles, and often surged off on what some considered wild-goose chases.
Today this industry is completely reorganizing itself to become more centralized, even as it is slowly starving to death. In absolute terms, its current financing is only a fraction of what it was under the Soviet regime. For example, the military space forces receive one-tenth the money and manpower they were allocated in 1989.
Throughout the glory days of the Space Age, Moscow had managed its space programs with an ad hoc lash-up of agencies, funding authorities, review boards, and political patrons. Long-term Soviet space doctrine was set more by whim, misperception, and backroom deals than by rational considerations. As revealed by Spectrum's interviews with Russian officials, alliances were as likely to be formed by friendship-or even marriage-between the heads of agencies as through formal charters or chains of command.
Front organizations, such as the Glavkosmos office for international sales, were created to deal with public or even international partners; but their vaunted authority was often hollow and their functions at times merely charades. Leadership was diffuse, bureaucracies inert, and the entire industry was prone to huge disruptions as projects and personalities gained or lost favor within the Kremlin.
Since the collapse of the USSR, the organizational situation has improved, despite the financial straits. The first step in the reformation was Moscow's creation of the Russian Space Agency (RKA, its initials for its name in Russian). Its head is Yuri Koptev, whose position roughly parallels that of the administrator of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The RKA has a small staff-about 300 people in all-and has centralized control of the civilian space budget, both manned and unmanned. Today, when the Russian government funds nonmilitary space projects, the RKA alone writes the checks.
The agency also deals on a cash-and-carry basis with its Defense Ministry sister office, the Military Space Forces (with the initials VKS for its Russian name). Its commander-in-chief is Colonel-General Vladimir Ivanov, who ranks roughly on a par with a three-star general in the United States Army. The VKS runs the nation's space-tracking networks and has its own spacecraft control center, Golytsino-2 in Krasnoznamensk, near Moscow. It also manages the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia's more northerly launch site, which had been under the administrative control of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces.
Alongside their independent oversights, the civilian RKA and the military VKS share several facilities. One is the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Russia's more southerly launch site, where the launch pads and facilities have been divided up. The RKA reimburses the VKS for the wages of more than half the military workers there, for their logistic support of civilian launches. Moreover, the RKA and the VKS jointly fund and manage the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center on an air force base northeast of Moscow, taking it over from the Russian Air Force.
The `real' space program
If the RKA and its director Koptev have one special management headache, it is its prime contractor, the Energiya Rocket and Space Complex (designated RKK-E in Russian), headed by Yuriy Semyonov. Two or three years ago, as the fledgling RKA struggled to learn the new bureaucratic ropes, Semyonov's
Energiya associates toured the world telling potential foreign partners (including the NASA and industry officials who recounted this to me) that all space deals would be made through them. "Ignore Koptev's people," Energiya officials assured their foreign contacts. "We are the real Russian space program."
Operationally speaking, they were not stretching the truth very far. Energiya is much more powerful than any Western aerospace corporation. As the descendant of an old bureau organized by the founder of the Soviet space program, Sergey Korolyov, Energiya essentially runs today's Russian manned space program. It orders boosters and spacecraft from subcontractors, arranges for launchings by the VKS, owns and operates the Mission Control Center in Kaliningrad, and for all practical purposes owns the Mir space station.
Civilian cosmonauts are recruited exclusively from the staff of Energiya. A decade ago, the organization also ran the short-lived Buran program for a reusable space shuttle and oversaw development of the powerful super booster also called Energiya. From the Energiya Complex's point of view, the rest of the Russian space program consists only of second-rate sideshows.
But Energiya went a bit too far when it privatized itself two years ago, distributing half the stock among its officials and assigning half to the central government. Aspiring to highly profitable deals with Western companies, NASA, and the European Space Agency, Semyonov's group was soon astonished to see Koptev's new RKA team outmaneuver them on the international front, leaving them with only a few secondary contracts. To meet the rest of the corporation's operating budget, the RKA started disbursing central government funding at exactly the Energiya stock ownership ratio: half was to come from Moscow, and half would somehow have to be raised privately by Energiya. With what amounts to only half funding, the corporation has survived, but that its status is subordinate to the RKA is no longer in doubt.
The civilian RKA also directly runs a series of smaller laboratories, institutes, and factories. Plus, it deals with smaller, specialized independent firms for items such as spacesuits, interplanetary probes, and data analysis. For specific projects, it cooperates as need be with independent scientific groups, such as the Institute for Medical and Biological Problems and the Moscow Academy of Sciences' Institute for Space Research (IKI in Russian). But the RKA does not fund these institutes, and their parent organizations hardly do, either, so many of these and other scientific groups have just about shriveled.
The visitor to the Russian space centers quickly realizes their apartness from post-Soviet Russian society. Years after the Soviet Union collapsed and communism officially died, freshly painted hammers and sickles still adorn space facilities that flaunt the names and profiles of Lenin and other Old Bolsheviks, such as Mikhail Kalinin.
One of the leaders of the 1991 anti-Gorbachev putsch that led to the USSR's collapse was the former head of the entire Soviet space industry, Oleg Baklanov. Those who are now in charge of Russian space organizations are mainly Baklanov's proteges, put there in the Brezhnev years, and most seem to feel nostalgia for that era. Consequently, long before the public lost its enthusiasm for Russian President Boris Yeltsin, space workers had split their political allegiances between old-style Communists and new-style radical nationalists. Someday these old-timers will be replaced, but for the time being, there is a state of fearful uncertainty in the industry over how it can be done. Most of the top space experts are survivors of the generation that worked on Sputnik and Vostok nearly 40 years ago. Because the same group went from project to project as the space programs developed over the decades, they are uniquely experienced and knowledgeable. But even though all are in their 60s and 70s, they rarely document their activities for the reference of future workers.
As a result, an institutional amnesia may be creeping in, as illustrated by a curious incident in Moscow's mission control center last April. The Mir cosmonauts displayed several pieces of hardware over their television downlink, described the items, and asked what they were for and whether to retain or discard them. After a determined research effort, ground controllers had to tell the cosmonauts that nobody on earth recognized the gear or knew its purpose. There were no written records and no surviving experts to consult.
For the first two decades of the Space Age (from 1957 to the early 1980s), at the height of the Cold War era, Moscow officially had only one space center, and its name was a deception. The center was built near the railway station of Tyuratam, just east of the Aral Sea, near 46 degrees north-at about the same latitude as the Canadian city of Montreal. To disguise its location, the authorities referred to the center formally as Baikonur, the name of a tiny mining village 250 km to the northeast. Even the official applications for international spaceflight records carried false latitude-longitude values to hide the facts.
The USSR's second main rocket center was a converted intercontinental ballistic missile base at Plesetsk, well above Moscow and just south of the Arctic Circle. When the Plesetsk center began launching satellites with Cosmos 112 in 1966, it was wrapped in even deeper geographical deception, officially not even existing until 1983. The dazzling fireworks in the sky could not be concealed from nearby residents, but cover stories spread by security officials claimed they came from nowhere else but Mars: they were "genuine UFOs," and no, there was no top secret rocket base anywhere nearby. Surprisingly perhaps, evidence suggests that the unidentified flying objects were more widely believed in than the rocket base story.
At the height of the Space Age, the unacknowledged Plesetsk launch site accounted for more than half of all space launches in the whole world, with Baikonur a distant second-both leading the United States by far. Plesetsk concentrated on routine application launchings of medium-sized and small boosters and payloads, while complex manned and deep-space missions surged skywards from Baikonur.
In the last few years of retrenchment following the USSR's dissolution, the cosmodrome at Plesetsk has held its own despite staffing problems and other shortages, including recent power cutoffs due to unpaid bills. Located within the nation of Russia itself, its stability is guaranteed, so monetary investment there is secure. Its winters are hard, but Baikonur, located further south, suffers from harsher weather. Plesetsk's climate is moderated by the White Sea, while Baikonur, being far inland, is more exposed to temperature extremes and high winds. Moreover, unlike Baikonur, Plesetsk is close to Russian industrial support.
Plesetsk's advantages are offset by two key shortcomings. One is its far north location. At a latitude of more than 62 degrees north, its rockets will be unable to reach the planned 51-degree inclination of the International Space Station without a fuel-guzzling orbital plane change. The heavier the payload, the greater the problem. Even worse, the high latitude makes it extremely costly-virtually impractical-to handle payloads aimed at high-altitude earth orbits in the plane of the equator, such as the geosynchronous orbit (35 700 km above the earth) so useful for communications satellites.
A second disadvantage is that Plesetsk is not yet equipped for launching big boosters. At best it can launch the medium-sized Soyuz and Molniya boosters, which are derived from the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) originally based there and comparable to the U.S. Atlas and Titan-II boosters. Launching pads for the newer, bigger Zenit booster (about twice the size of Atlas) are under construction but may be years from completion. As for Russia's most powerful operational booster, the Proton is about the size of a Titan-IV or Saturn-1, and launching it out of Plesetsk any time soon is unlikely in view of the vast cost of building an appropriate pad.
Therefore, the only location for launching the Proton is Baikonur, now deep within the independent nation of Kazakhstan. The Russians have looked elsewhere -- they have investigated launch sites in Australia, New Guinea, Brazil, French Guiana, and even aboard a converted aircraft carrier and a drilling rig-but have deemed them all impractical for technical or financial reasons. For the foreseeable future, then, it's Baikonur or nowhere for the Proton.
Three threats to Baikonur
Baikonur itself could become nowhere, if the launch base succumbs to any of three threats. The first is its aging equipment, much of which is rapidly wearing out and breaking down. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, precious little funding is now available for refurbishment outside Russia's borders.
The second threat is its decline in personnel, whose living conditions in the workers' city of Leninsk are as bad as conditions in the physical plant. The lack of heat, functioning plumbing, reliable electricity, and safe drinking water continues to drive away current workers and discourage most potential replacements.
The last threat is political. Some day, perhaps soon, Kazakhstanis will face a transition from one-man rule to an uncertain new type of government, at a time when a revival of tensions among ethnic groups threatens to partition the immature state much as Yugoslavia was divided. Such a fate could leave the launch site in an unenviable no man's land.
The technological drawbacks have been the easiest to photograph and videotape, which I did on my March visit. Even operational pads, such as those for Soyuz and Zenit, are showing wear as support equipment breaks down and cannot be replaced. In older facilities, as fire prevention programs and equipment wither and as underemployed operators grow less skilled and more careless, fires have become more common within assembly halls and even at the launch pads. But an influx of cash from foreign commercial contracts is paying for the Proton complex to be overhauled and upgraded with new European equipment for communications and power, and even for a new visitors' center. The dwindling of personnel is due to the positively inhuman pressures that the workers and their families must endure in Leninsk. Many of these families are leaving Kazakhstan, hoping to be able to return to Russia. Privation, uncertainty, and physical dangers create conditions under which no Western government would expect air traffic controllers or nuclear power plant operators or space workers to operate safely. In my estimation, the environment comprises a classic recipe for inattention, error, or even sabotage.
According to Russian press sources, the civilian RKA recently promised to invest the equivalent of US $20 million per year in improvements in infrastructure. But those plans and that funding fall far short of what is needed. U.S. Congressman George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), who visited Baikonur in late 1993, estimated that an immediate infusion of $100 million was needed just to reverse the cosmodrome's collapse.
By late 1995, foreign visitors to Baikonur reported that small numbers of civilians had begun replacing the departing Russian military teams. Although the VKS is reducing its staffing levels, the RKA has started picking up some of the remaining military force's salaries, and hiring some others to work as RKA contract civilians. But civilian substitutes have been arriving far more slowly than military workers are being pulled out, accelerating the collapse of more of the cosmodrome's services.
Politically, Kazakhstan is enjoying stability under the firm hand of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who rules by decree, balancing the conflicting interests of the Russians in the north against the Kazakhs and other Central Asian minorities in the south. Yet ethnically, Kazakhstan has all the ingredients of a Central Asian Bosnia, and a newly formed nation rarely stays stable after the death of a founding strongman.
These tensions are evident in Leninsk itself, where 40 000 Russian residents coexist with 10 000 legal Kazakh inhabitants and about 7000-10 000 illegal Kazakh squatters. According to reports in The New York Times and Aviation Week & Space Technology, these people are ecological refugees from the Aral Sea area, which has been devastated by pesticide runoff from the cotton fields upstream. Neither the Russian military police, Russian state militias, nor Kazakh police have been able to dislodge more than a handful of the refugees from the city.
The current treaty allowing Russia to lease the Baikonur cosmodrome from Kazakhstan was based on personal negotiations between Nazarbayev and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who is fast emerging as a rival and possible successor of Yeltsin. The much advertised "annual rent" of $115 million turns out to be based on the estimated interest of a Kazakh debt to Russia of more than $1 billion, which Nazarbayev acknowledged as part of his deal with Yeltsin for his country's independence.
All the same, the Russians may not pay a single dollar for the lease, but instead credit the sum toward reducing the Kazakh debt. Since the Russians have refused to consider paying any reparations for the environmental and human damage at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test range and in the ecologically ruined Aral Basin (now both within Kazakhstan), many Kazakhs consider the deal a total sellout. They have campaigned to amend it, starting with a total repudiation of the Kazakh debt and a demand for real cash payments for Baikonur. The issue has been simmering under the surface, but possibly will erupt before long.
As a replacement for Baikonur, Russian military space experts have wanted to convert an SS-11 ICBM base at Svobodniy in southeastern Siberia into a space launch site. This base, not far from Khabarovsk on the Sea of Okhotsk, may ultimately launch modified ICBMs into orbit, but the funding for larger booster pads just cannot be found.
Meanwhile, as many military space launchings as possible are being switched from Baikonur to Plesetsk. The landing site for manned space vehicles and unmanned film canisters from Soyuz Karta, spy satellites, and other satellites was officially reported to be moving from Kazakhstan to the southern Urals region next year.
In short, no ideal solution is in sight for Russia's launch site dilemma. All the options -- repair Baikonur, upgrade Plesetsk, or found a new base at Svobodniy -- entail massive expenditures that seem beyond Russia's foreseeable space budgets.
The space boosters
With the exception of the brief interval (1987-88) when the super-booster Energiya helped loft the short-lived Buran reusable space shuttle, the Proton has been the biggest and most reliable Russian space booster in operation. Built at the Khrunichev Center rocket factory in Moscow, it now has more than 200 launches to its credit. In 1994 alone, 13 Proton boosters lifted off, tying the country's record high and suggesting that the Protons were immune to the general collapse of the country's space industry. In 1995, though, the rate fell to eight, and the Russian press has blamed financial difficulties for the delay of four or five other Proton missions scheduled for this year. Commercial deals for Proton launches have already been signed with European and U.S. communications satellite builders, among them Astra, Hughes, Inmarsat, Iridium, Loral, and PanAmSat.
The first joint Russian-Western satellite launch aboard a Proton rocket is set for early next year. More launchings are being negotiated, as is a relaxation of the strict launch quota decreed several years ago by the Bush administration, which wanted to protect expendable U.S. rockets from being undercut by cheaper Russian rockets.
Last year, the Khrunichev Center teamed up with Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., Sunnyvale, Calif.; the new partnership, headquartered in San Diego, offers international customers a full range of services, all the way from small refurbished Titan II boosters through launch aboard the Proton rocket. Then Lockheed merged with Martin Marietta Corp., Bethesda, Md., and the Russian alliance has been inherited by the new Lockheed Martin aerospace super-conglomerate. The Proton rocket -- which can lift a payload of 20 tons -- is also key to the construction of the International Space Station, because the rocket is slated to put the crucial first Russian modules for the station into orbit. Reportedly, the somewhat smaller Zenit rocket -- which can lift a 15-ton payload -- will launch the later laboratory modules and heavy supply ships.
All this Western funding "has allowed us to implement some long-standing plans for improving the booster," Dennis Pivnyuk, a member of the newly formed public relations staff at the Khrunichev Center, told me during my March visit. The Khrunichev rocket factory radiated prosperity and vigor. Workers swarmed through the halls at shift changes. Everywhere (even in the back halls I peeked into when my hosts were not looking), there were neatly swept floors, clean windows, and functioning light fixtures -- details that speak volumes about levels of supply and maintenance.
The Khrunichev Center has begun the upgrade by outfitting the Proton's first stage with a closed-loop guidance system. The new system will in effect expand the rocket's payload capacity, Pivnyuk explained. The old open-loop guidance system did not utilize input from flight sensors to adjust the rocket's trajectory to hit the end point desired for the first stage flight, he said. Instead, large fuel reserves were needed to remedy variations, however large, in the trajectory, and any unused fuel was wasted once the Proton's first stage shut down. The fact that the new closed-loop guidance system has no need of burdensome fuel reserves frees the upgraded Proton rocket to carry an additional half ton of payload into low orbit -- and thereby to squeeze extra performance from the 30-year-old design.
As a bonus, the closed-loop guidance system allows the first stage to be burned to depletion. That means an end to a practice bitterly protested by local residents: the dumping on downrange pastures of highly toxic excess propellants.
The Proton's payload capacity is being further expanded by the design of a more powerful upper stage, which will be able to carry heavier payloads into geosynchronous orbit. This newly developed cryogenic upper stage will mark Russia's first operational use of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen beyond the two Energiya launches.
An extra `kick'
Alongside this Proton upper stage, a splinter group of senior engineers from the Lavochkin Design Bureau, in Moscow, is working on an independent alternate upper stage. The group, headed by Vladimir Ashushkin, formerly Lavochkin's chief designer for launch vehicles and communications, intends to take the design of one of Lavochkin's interplanetary probe's propulsion stages and sell it as a booster kick stage named Fregat (Russian for frigate), which can be used with all the Russian boosters, not just the Proton. "We're building mockups this year and aiming for a first launch by the end of 1996," Ashushkin announced to me at a special meeting at Glavkosmos.
He explained the four design principles behind the Fregat upper stage system. "First, since the need is urgent, it must be done soon," he said. Fortunately, since the basic propulsion system had been designed for the ill-fated Fobos probes to Mars in 1988-89, adapting it is turning out to be simple. Second, "the subsystems must be `off the shelf,' and these are." Third, the subsystems must have demonstrated high levels of reliability. And finally, the Fregat must be "a general-purpose vehicle of medium class" that provides "a good match with existing payload classes," he said.
In particular, Ashushkin wants to give medium-sized payloads launched from Plesetsk the oomph they need to reach the orbits now practical only from Baikonur. His design team has prepared studies of the use of the high-performance Fregat kick stage on top of Soyuz, Molniya, Zenit, and Proton boosters.
"Protons launch navigation satellites three at a time from Baikonur," Ashushkin explained. "But with the much cheaper Molniya-Fregat booster, we can launch them one at a time from Plesetsk and do without Baikonur." Other combinations may allow Plesetsk to be used for geosynchronous launches of payloads nearly as large as the current Proton capability out of Baikonur. The performance calculations are credible, and the veteran design team's dedication is unquestionable. But the route to the new Fregat's operational status must be paved with rubles, of course, and this factor is beyond the control of the workers. Even the chance of selling some Fregat vehicles to the Chinese, for lunar probes planned for launch in about 1999, has yet to produce a positive cash flow.
Still, the influx of Western funds has been a life-saver for a number of Russian rocket factories. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, suppliers for many critical subsystems were suddenly beyond the new Russian federation's borders. Once the union was split, these suppliers required cash-not bureaucratic directives-to deliver the parts. With funding fading out in Moscow, aerospace workers have been leaving the industry in droves.
At the same time, the advance of technology has both taken a toll and saved the day. Ten years ago, the awesome Russian annual launch rate was sustained at well over 90 orbital flights per year, peaking at 101 in 1992. It has since fallen to less than half that-far below a level that would keep all the factories in business. By early this year, Russian launch rates had fallen below levels in the early 1960s, when the U.S.-USSR space race had just begun.
Meanwhile, avionics improvements have been such that payload lifetimes have lengthened steadily, often more than keeping pace in "payload days" in space-even at the lower launch rates and with slashed funding. A typical communications or navigation satellite now has a design lifetime of three years, and observations by Western experts indicate that most Russian payloads have met that goal, though few exceeded it by much. According to public statements by Russian officials, two-thirds of Russian satellites now in orbit are operating days to years beyond their design lifetimes. End of the stockpile
That launchings have kept going at all is due to two factors: the handful of new rockets being rolled off the assembly lines by their skeleton staff, and the exploitation of the "strategic reserve" of boosters that were stockpiled long ago for military support for surge operations. The stockpile is supposed to be continuously replenished as boosters are used. In fact, half the rockets used by the Mir space station support missions in the past two years have been "borrowed" from this military stockpile-but without replenishment. Just two months ago (October), the stockpile of military boosters was finally exhausted, so that the launch of the next manned mission to the Mir space station had to be delayed two months while a new booster was built to order.
But it's an ill wind that blows no one any good. Today's phase of hand-crafted jury-rigged boosters has forced Russia's rocket builders to modify earlier hardware modifications, both to maintain basic capabilities and to modernize the old designs.
Besides the work on the Proton rocket at Khrunichev, other booster factories are implementing their own upgrades. The Soyuz/Molniya booster is manufactured to a 40-year-old design at the Progress Center in Samara and is being upgraded to a new version called Rus, because it is based on all-Russian components. And the intermediate Kosmos booster is undergoing a similar metamorphosis to become the Vzlet space booster, similar to the U.S. Delta launch vehicle.
As for the powerful Zenit and Tsiklon boosters, they are being manufactured in the Ukraine by the Pivdenne Center in Dnepropetrovsk, formerly called the Yuzhnoye Bureau (both words mean southern, but the Russian word has been replaced by the Ukrainian word). Since vital components such as rocket engines come from Russia, the building of these key boosters in a newly independent nation poses complexities both technical and diplomatic. In other industries, proper payments and delivery schedules across the Russian/Ukrainian border have been a challenge; but as both sides stand to gain by this deal, workable solutions will likely be found.
Russian rocket builders also hope to profit from the direct sale of rocket engines to Western aerospace firms. The Progress Center in Samara has almost a hundred powerful engines perfectly preserved from the 1960s' moon race. Sales of cryogenic upper-stage engines to India led to a Washington-Moscow crisis when the United States feared India could convert them into military missiles. In the end, the Russians agreed to withhold manufacturing technology, and the scaled-down deal went through.
Other factories in Moscow and Omsk are offering rocket designs to top U.S. firms such as Aerojet, Lockheed Martin, and Pratt & Whitney. Some of these deals may pan out, but most may fail, since many of the sponsoring Russian rocket companies are near bankruptcy and have already lost too many key personnel to resume reliable production.
Beyond the modernizations and the derivations based on the existing fleet of Russian boosters lies a vast medley of converted military missiles and aircraft. Just as in the United States, probably a dozen groups in Russia have developed proposals for small to medium-sized space launchers based on retired military missiles, or on boosters fired from aircraft, ships, ocean platforms, or bases in Australia, French Guyana, or Hawaii. Cooperative deals are being negotiated with companies in France, Germany, the United States, and elsewhere. Although these proposals are bedecked with enthusiastic promises and devoted workers, flight performance has been unimpressive. (One launched from Plesetsk earlier this year failed because the flight control system was inadequate.) Probably, again, most of these projects will fade away in a year or two.
Last, bucking money problems, the civilian space agency RKA has funded the development of a heavy-class space launcher called the Angara. Its design is innovative in that it consists of a first stage ringed by additional propellant tanks that drop off when empty, similar to the external tank that holds the fuel for the U.S. space shuttle's main engines.
The Angara booster is to enter service within a decade. Since it will be compatible with Zenit-class launch pads, it will fly from Plesetsk. So even if Proton launches from Baikonur are phased out, the production line at Khrunichev will not skip a beat, since that rocket factory will be building the Angara replacement booster. "If we had privatized and become a stock company," Pivnyuk boasted, "we all would become rich buying shares."
Conditions at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Starry Town, northeast of Moscow, hit bottom last year. (Starry Town is the only accurate translation of the Russian name Zvezdniy Gorodok, which is a diminutive meaning "small city", the Russian government's official mistranslation, Star City, is grandiose because it implies a metropolis.) Visitors from abroad and even the Russians themselves told of unlit corridors, unmowed lawns, empty stores, and deserted streets. The Russian Air Force had been host of the facilities and the residential area for the cosmonauts and their families but had cut off funding in favor of more defense-related expenditures.
To keep the training center running at all, officials asked Western visitors for gifts such as blank videotapes. Press interviews, formerly free of charge, began costing hundreds of dollars an hour. Commercial agreements with Western travel agencies brought many U.S. and European tourists in for brief visits, and a few even stayed for a week-long "space training course"-a Russian space camp, as it were-paying more than US $1000 for the week. On a larger scale, as funding from the central government has shrunk, Russian manned-space program officials have learned to offer "guest cosmonaut" flights for a substantial fee to West European countries such as Austria, France, and Germany. The two long flights (30 and 135 days) by European Space Agency astronauts in 1994 and 1995 brought in about $85 million. And in 1993, NASA signed a multiyear $400 million contract for extended U.S. visits to the Mir space station and for large amounts of work on the International Space Station, including some hardware.
Non-U.S. visiting astronauts occupy the third seat in the three-man Soyuz spacecraft for the Mir space station, with the commander and flight engineer forming the core crew. So when a new crew heads for orbit, they can carry either extra luggage or take a third cosmonaut who then returns to earth with the relieved Mir crew in their Soyuz. Usually, the arrival of a new Mir crew occurs a week or two before the departure of the old crew, and that time is enough for the guest's activities.
In 1996, two more paying-guest cosmonaut missions are planned, with the French paying $14.7 million for a two-week expedition now scheduled for July and the German Space Agency paying a similar sum for a mission slated for December. The French and the European Space Agency may buy additional flights in 1997, now that U.S. money seems to guarantee that Mir will still be functioning.
Negotiations have also been under way with other possible customers. Chile, Finland, and Greece have declined, but discussions have been reported with a South Korean television conglomerate on sending one of its reporters up in mid-1997. The Russians trained six of their own journalists for a space visit a few years ago. But since none of the journalists' parent organizations can pay for the ticket, that mission is on indefinite hold.
In such a stripped-down mode, the Russian manned space program can probably survive on these cash flow conditions. The cosmonaut corps, on the other hand, recently endured massive layoffs of older men, many of them unflown but highly trained specialists in their 40s and 50s. Support for space medicine research was also slashed; some key groups, such as the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems, received no state funding at all.
Visitors to Starry Town run into all sorts of official and unofficial fund-raising activities at the cosmonaut training center. When shown the neutral buoyancy simulator-a large water tank where cosmonauts practice space walks-I was told no photographs were allowed. But then I was ushered into a viewing room where a small souvenir stand-complete with high-priced photographs and videotapes-had been set up for visitors. (During the showing of an orientation video, I excused myself to go to the bathroom and walked alone down the hall to the observation portholes, where I shot what I wanted with my own cameras.)
Getting enough power
The configuration of training equipment in the water tank and candid discussions with officials at the training center pointed me to one conclusion. Foremost in every cosmonaut's mind was the supply of electric power for the space station.
The Mir's power system is simple in theory but has proven thorny in practice. It is based on wing-like panels of solar cells. Each new module unfolds its own arrays as it docks with Mir. But the newcomers sometimes block the arrays already up there. The situation is so bad, in fact, that a few years ago Russian officials, in a lecture on the Mir power system sponsored by Energiya and given in Reston, Va., said that up to 40 percent of the theoretical power output is lost in mutual shadowing.
Matters are worsened by conditions in open space-notably solar protons that "dope" the silicon solar cells and thermal cycling that eventually breaks wires. Their effects gradually degrade each panel's power output at an average annual rate of 6-8 percent. The problem afflicts all solar arrays on all spacecraft, but degradation is much faster for a few of Mir's most brittle panels. The batteries inside the modules must also be replaced at intervals. From time to time, when power levels drop too low, automatic relays trigger an enforced blackout, sometimes at awkward moments.
Meanwhile, the Mir has been in orbit 10 years and continuously occupied for six by rotating teams of Russian and guest cosmonauts and one U.S. astronaut. In all likelihood, were they not on board for maintenance, servicing, and intervention when automatic systems fail, the station would have become useless some time ago. If Mir should ever have to be abandoned, Russian space officials have little hope that it will last for long.
Beginning early next year, U.S. astronauts will take up permanent residency on Mir as well, arriving by the U.S. space shuttle. Since hundreds of millions of dollars of NASA payments for new hardware for the International Space Station are at stake, the Russians can be expected to maintain Mir at all costs.
Sometime in 1997 or 1998, as assembly of the International Space Station begins in a different orbit, Mir will be equipped with an experimental solar dynamic power system and left to run on a beefed-up autopilot for at least a year, so that additional tests may be run on equipment for the final space station. At this time, unless the Russians go on finding new paying- guest cosmonauts, they probably will have succeeded in completing the longest manned phase of any space station's operational life. Safely deorbiting the abandoned Mir remains an unsolved operational problem.
Meanwhile, cosmonaut conditions back on earth also have been sweetened by Western funding. After bottoming out last year, living conditions at Starry Town seem to be improving. The stores are better stocked and the people were feeling upbeat after several years of depression.
Locals had even regained their sense of humor. Knowing that I would not have the time, they still suggested mischievously that I pass by the back corner of their town on the way out, because there I could inspect the row of new three-story brick "cottages" (their word) being built for the training center cosmonauts, many of whom are top center officials. At a cost of up to $1 million each, these mansions-which would not be out of place in some of the wealthiest U.S. suburbs-are obviously not being funded from the officials' meager salaries. But their existence is widely seen as a sign of impending general prosperity, for which the working troops are grateful to the European Space Agency and NASA.
Sitting in the ultra-modern main control room at the mission control center in Kaliningrad, on the northern edge of Moscow, I contemplated the contradictions it represented. At enormous expense, in the mid-1980s, this state-of-the-art facility had been built to monitor orbital flights for the Buran reusable space shuttle program. Western equipment, which looked to me like top-of-the-line items, lined the room.
The control room was used just once, for a three-hour unmanned Buran mission in late 1988. The $12 billion spent on the shuttle project, which included the new control facility as well as the development and construction of the reusable shuttle, was then written off as a needless detour when the Buran project was canceled.
When Western dignitaries visit the mission control center building (called the TsUP in its Russian-language acronym), they are sometimes shown the Buran room, instead of the older hall that runs the Mir space station. In the Mir control center in the original part of the building, round-the-clock shifts of operators in street clothes wander in or out as the flight plan requires, and desks are stacked with the books, documents, and charts common to spacecraft control centers the world over. If nothing urgent demands their attention, they may walk away from their stations or use their screens to call up "Tetris" (a Russian videogame that is also popular in the West).
Just before an official visit, however, some two dozen workers are issued white lab coats and directed to sit in front of display screens in the spotless Buran room, while flight telemetry is piped onto the screens to look real. Pictures of foreign visitors published in Russian newspapers usually show them down among the consoles of the new room. Moreover, the official control center booklet has data from the Soviet Vega probe to Halley's Comet up on the front display screens for visitors, even though the probe was not controlled from anywhere in the building.
Conspicuous by absence
For the linkup of the U.S. astronaut and the Mir space station last March, my tour group was taken into the modern Buran control room. For us ordinary visitors, there was no pretense of this room being an operational facility, although people there noted that it would be brought on-line for the International Space Station. It was just a super-expensive display lounge. A world map with a spacecraft orbital path was projected onto the front wall of the room. The display showed the disposition of the vehicles in relation to each other and to the telemetry communications stations, and numeric tables showed other trajectory data. But for anyone with a long memory, the map had even more tales to tell.
The circles around ground-tracking sites showed where each spacecraft was expected to enter and then leave communications coverage. These circles spanned Russia from west to east, from a new site near St. Petersburg to the old site on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Two southern sites, in the Crimea and near Tbilisi, Georgia, had disappeared, because the Ukraine and Georgia had become independent countries and are no longer part of Russia's space activity.
But the map's most striking absentees were the tracking ships. They had once been strung across the Atlantic Ocean, filling in gaps in the land site coverage and in particular covering areas above which critical maneuvers would occur. All the big tracking ships built in the 1960s and `70s-the Komarov, the Korolyov, and the flagship, the Gagarin-today are rusting in Odessa; they are the property of a country that has no need of them (Ukraine), except to lease them to another country (Russia) that has no foreign currency to operate them.
In fact, according to several recent Moscow press reports that were confirmed by Moscow contacts, the Korolyov and the Gagarin are up for sale. I was told the ships were hosting business seminars in their main lounges for small rental fees, while negotiations were proceeding behind the scenes to sell them to the People's Republic of China for its expanding missile test program.
Four smaller Defense Ministry ships, which wound up docked in Leningrad when the USSR disintegrated, were turned over formally to the civilian space program not long ago. The RKA, however, has allocated no money even to maintain them and may sell them overseas for scrap to raise much-needed hard currency. Way out east, in Vladivostok, the Military Space Forces once had two tremendous modern tracking ships called the Marshall Nedelin and the Akedemik Krylov. But neither ship has been mentioned in public in five years and in March no source would say where they are now.
Without these ships, the Mir cosmonauts can communicate with the mission control center only during brief periods as they pass over the remaining in-country tracking sites. As the earth spins and moves Russia out from below the orbit's northern passes, the spacecraft can circle earth many times without passing within range of any site. During each 24-hour period, up to 9-10 hours are continuously out of contact, followed by 10-15 minutes of communication every hour and a half.
To fill in some of the communications gaps, the Russians have developed a relay satellite system like NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS). The system is called Altair and the geosynchronous satellite itself is named Luch (Russian for ray or beam). But as luck would have it, when the USSR's space program fragmented, the communications satellites wound up in a different ministry from the manned program. As a result, when the cosmonauts need the relay satellite, the control center must pay cash-in U.S. dollars-by the minute to lease it. No Russian or NASA official will say how much that leasing costs, but the huge expense can be inferred from how quickly the control center terminates the relay once the crucial orbital maneuvers are safely finished.
Western visitors to Mir also have been making their voices heard through use of ham radio rigs. During his 110 days on Mir last spring, U.S. guest cosmonaut Norman Thagard regularly talked to his associates in Houston over the ham radio. NASA is activating several other U.S. ground reception sites (at Edwards Air Force Base in California and at Wallops Island in Virginia) for future U.S. visitors to use.
Russia's military control center
While the civilian Kaliningrad control center is the one shown off to the world, it is not Russia's main space mission control center. By mid-'95, there were by official count approximately 160 active Russian space vehicles in orbit. Although Kaliningrad controlled one of those-the Mir space station-all the others were controlled out of Golytsino-2, Russia's Military Space Forces control center. Golytsino-2 is close to the town of Krasnoznamensk, about 45 km to the west of Moscow. Newspaper accounts of the center have appeared only of late in the Russian press, but all requests to visit it were shrugged off as impossible.
Yet, out of the publicity glare surrounding manned programs, Golytsino-2 has been quietly nursing along an impressive array of unmanned research and applications satellites.
As does the United States, the Russian military has its own reconnaissance "space spies" (designed to verify arms control treaties and keep an eye on the deployment of Western strategic weapons), along with networks of communications, missile warning, meteorology, and navigation payloads. Geodetic payloads steadily refine world maps, improving ICBM aiming. Calibration targets help ensure accuracy of tracking radars. And until recently, a special fleet of Russian spy satellites turned their sensors on Russia's own domestic targets to monitor military units for any lapses in countermeasures against U.S. satellites.
When appealing for government funding, military spokesmen often make the not-unreasonable claim that their investment in space-based resources is a "force multiplier" of the rest of the Russian military forces, as great as a factor of two. Yet in the past five years alone, their budget has been slashed to a tenth of former levels in actual purchasing power, and trained personnel has been cut drastically.
In spite of the desperate situation, the Golytsino controllers, trained in the Mozhaysk Military Engineering Space Academy in St. Petersburg, still behave with great professional competence in the face of spacecraft emergencies. Late in 1994, for example, the launch of Russia's first geosynchronous weather satellite, Elektro-1, nearly ended in disaster when the spacecraft's local vertical sensor failed (the sensor's cover may not have been removed before launch). With no documented way to orient the vehicle, controllers at Golytsino-2 and at the satellite's manufacturer developed techniques to use the coarse sun sensor to aim the solar panels, then estimated the craft's rotational position from the received signal power level. By the time the satellite had drifted into its planned position over the Indian Ocean, its pole star fine sensor had been successfully locked on and its cameras were aimed adequately. This impressive story of ingenuity and perseverance was uncovered by an independent Russian space magazine, Cosmonautics News, when the mainstream Russian press and the official space program spokesmen refused to break military secrecy to discuss it.
Financially, things are only slightly better in the civilian applications satellite programs. Some programs, such as the Resurs film-return observation satellites, have been totally suspended. After a year-long hiatus, the last one in the inventory was launched in September 1995, and commercial funding for a commercial follow-on called Nika has so far been inadequate. (A mid-1995 commercial agreement with Western firms to market data might lead to flights next year.) Others, such as the Okean oceanographic monitors, make only rare flights.
An exception is the Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass), which late this year completed its operational constellation. It has 100-150-meter accuracy, about the same as the "degraded" version of the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) for nonmilitary users.
Of Russia's 24 operational geostationary spacecraft, three-fourths are beyond their design lifetime. The constellations are normally replenished at a rate of six to eight new spacecraft per year, as needed by actual breakdowns. But as replacement launch rates keep falling behind failure rates, the threat of further losses grows.
The net impact is that a smaller cadre of satellite controllers is being forced to nurse an aging collection of application payloads well beyond their design lifetimes. Even before they fail outright, they are cautiously operated in degraded modes to conserve their remaining capabilities.
Without any indication that the orbital constellations will be replenished at anywhere near the necessary rate in the months to come, Russian officials themselves forecast the collapse of many of the networks and the loss of services. At that point, they will either have to do without, or they will have to pay hard currency to lease services on Western satellites.
Mir itself is also feeling the budgetary stranglehold this year, especially when it has led to the loss of experienced personnel. When overworked and underprepared ground controllers tried to deploy a solar panel on the new Spektr module, they sent up the unlatching commands in the wrong order, and the panel jammed, requiring a risky space walk to deploy it. As the space-walking cosmonauts installed a restraining strap on a piece of equipment, they were out of radio contact for hours and had to guess at the proper orientation. They guessed wrong, and the strap later jammed a different solar panel.
A subsequent space walk to fix that problem was aborted when it turned out the water cooling loops inside the commander's spacesuit had been improperly configured, again thanks to inadequate ground monitoring. Everything was fixed; but such an increase in errors is yet another sign of thin human resources stretched to the limit in a troubled system near collapse. Not even the Russians know how much further the system can be stressed before something catastrophic happens.
In August, the Russians launched a rare and wonderful space mission, distinguished by its unusual purpose: pure scientific research. An advanced solar and ionospheric physics probe in the long-standing civilian Prognoz (or Forecast) series was put into a 63-degree-inclination orbit as part of the international Interbol program for monitoring solar radiation. The space probe had to be launched atop a rocket "borrowed" from the dwindling military stockpile. In addition, for the first time in the Prognoz program, the launch was not from Baikonur in Kazakhstan but from Plesetsk in Russia-a possible harbinger of things to come.
Although the term "space exploration" is still widely used to describe a nation's space activities, in Russia's case it has been applied sparingly as scientific projects have withered and died in the budget famines of recent years. The last Soviet interplanetary mission, in 1988-89, involved two Mars orbiters that were supposed also to land on Phobos, the Martian moonlet. But the project was so mismanaged that both probes failed. The first was lost en route because of faulty commands sent; the second was lost after its arrival in orbit around Mars (no reason given), although it did return a few photographs of Phobos and Mars.
Plans for a follow-on Mars-94 mission had to be dropped, despite international agreements, when the spacecraft factory, the Lavochkin Bureau in Moscow, refused to build the vehicles on credit. The mission has been renamed Mars-96 to reflect the optimistic new launch time of Oct. 10, 1996, and some money has been forthcoming from Western partners. All the same, Russian officials warned recently that financial support was inadequate to meet that date.
The big ticket items, such as the Mir space station and scientific space probes, are generally considered by Russian officials to be the dues that Moscow must pay to be still considered a world superpower. Such activities advertise the country's power and technological virtuosity at a time when all other indicators seem to show it slipping back into the Third World.
With little prospect of Moscow's financing any independent follow-on to Mir in this century, the civilian RKA was faced with the option of diverting the half-built hardware into modules for the International Space Station. Meanwhile, the United States let a $200 million contract with the Khrunichev Center to build the keystone specialized foundation module (designated FGB)-the central space station element that had been estimated to cost about $1.2 billion were it to be built in the United States.
NASA administrator Daniel Goldin has told the U.S. Congress that he expects the final cash transfer to Moscow to be about $1 billion for the entire joint effort. (Anything the United States buys from Russia for the space station is estimated to cost roughly 15 percent of a U.S.-built equivalent.) At the same time, however, the United States will spend about $1 billion a year more on pushing the shuttle to the higher inclination needed for the Russians to have access to the space station. A third of each half-billion-dollar shuttle flight's payload capability is sacrificed to the fuel required for the Russia-compatible orbit (a loss that NASA's bookkeeping does not acknowledge as a cost of the Russian hardware.)
The Russians have heard and believe this billion-dollar figure. They are now developing ways to bill NASA for an extra $400 million for activities not yet specified, in addition to the $200 million FGB module and the original 1993 agreement of $400 million for visits to Mir and some space station hardware. Not long ago, they indicated that they intend to bill NASA for every Russian service across the hardware interface, ranging from crew time to fresh air-items that NASA had expected to be gratis swaps. The Russians, in short, are pushing for an annual payment of some $100 million for the life of the space station just to keep boosting it into a higher orbit against air drag.
Few tangible results
One disagreeable fact hobbling pro-space Russian officials seeking Moscow money is that, aside from fading propaganda glories, their country has nothing much to show for decades of manned space flight. NASA, on the contrary, can point to a few hundred kilograms of moon rocks that revolutionized planetary science, a technology utilization program, and the general stimulation of U.S. industrial capability by the commercial application of techniques learned during work on NASA contracts.
Russia's space industry was always so compartmentalized behind walls of military secrecy that little if anything leaked into the commercial sector. Often developments such as an automated landing system for Buran had to be independently and expensively reinvented by other avionics groups cut off from using technologies already operational in secret.
Under such conditions, being an international partner in the NASA-led space station is a "can't lose" prospect, despite some powerful domestic opposition: hard-line old-time elements in the Russian press, who claim that the country would be "bartering away its intellectual treasures." Close observation of NASA's technology transfer programs may open new doors for the invigoration of the Russian industrial base. If built, the International Space Station (the name of Alpha was dropped from the designation earlier this year) will provide Russia with facilities for space access and exploitation far superior to a simple improved Mir.
As for the construction of the space station, undoubtedly it could proceed essentially as NASA officials have been promising. The Russian modules would be delivered on time (unlike the Spektr and Priroda modules for Mir in 1995 and 1996) and function properly. Shuttle flights would occur within the planned intervals. And the Russians would agree to accept access to U.S. space equipment in exchange for doubling their own launch rate at their own expense.
There is also, on the other hand, the possibility that a crisis could arise a year or two after the space station assembly begins. Even assuming political stability and diplomatic continuity in both countries, the economic rationales that now ensure Russian support of cooperation may within four years have reversed direction and argue against it.
One reason is that, in order to support the international space station, the nation will be faced with funding 10 to 12 or even more launchings per year on its own-possibly as soon as 1998-99. A few will be manned visits or missions to install add-on science modules. Most, however, will be supply flights, mainly of rocket fuel to keep boosting the station into a higher oribit. Otherwise, the inexorable drag from molecules in the tenuous upper atmosphere would eventually pull it down into the atmosphere toward a fiery death.
NASA expects the Russians to absorb this cost in exchange for episodic access to the research tools of the entire station. The Russians, though, have begun to make it clear that they expect U.S. taxpayers to send them hundreds of millions of additional dollars in supplemental payments. That money has not been budgeted in NASA's fiscal plans, and it is not in the total cost the agency promised to the White House.
Meanwhile, the Russian segment of the international space station will be able to operate independently as a stand-alone orbital outpost-Mir-2, if you will. Keeping only the Russian segment in orbit would require fewer than half as many Russian launches per year as the entire space station will, and Moscow space officials may deem it entirely adequate for Russia's space research needs.
The resolution of this cosmic vulnerability will be a diplomatic challenge. Failure to have the required supply launches to keep the station aloft is a risk that must be protected against-without total reliance on Russia. And failure to keep the international space station in one piece could be catastrophic for the West's space research.
If Russian cosmonauts, on orders from Moscow, close their hatches and unlatch their modules, they will drift away from their former partners aboard a fully functioning space station. The conglomeration of U.S., European, and Japanese modules left behind would have no propulsion, inadequate life support hardware, and possibly no guidance systems. The billion-dollar "rump station" could fall Skylab-like from orbit within a matter of months, the most expensive piece of space junk in history.
These are just the physical possibilities; there are also political realities. Russia's future in space depends ultimately on Russia's interests on earth. In a formal government decree signed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in August, the Russian space agencies were assigned eight specific areas on which they were to "concentrate their main efforts on the resolution of the most important priority tasks." The eight areas were environmental monitoring, geodetic missions (global time/location determination), television communications, natural resources surveys, space reconnaissance (monitoring international arms reductions treaties), materials processing in space, fundamental space science, and "the implementation of international agreements" for the International Space Station and interplanetary probes. The actual program is to be adjusted year by year, "taking account of the funds allocated annually"-in other words, it should do as much possible with the money that can be found.
Thus, despite current crises, so far it seems clear that the nation intends to spend what is necessary-in money, material, and even the human suffering of overburdened and underpaid space workers-to sustain a space program befitting a world power. For the moment, Russia's needs justify a space program following a parallel, integrated course with Western programs. As a result, space workers from both countries have become colleagues and even friends.
It is wise, however, for both sides to recall what the British Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Lord Palmerston said about British foreign policy in the 19th century: on the world stage no country has permanent friends, only permanent interests.
Classic Hollywood Westerns often used wind-blown tumbleweeds to depict scenes of isolation and decay, to set the psychological tone for lonely ranches and abandoned ghost towns. So I found it strikingly appropriate -- since the tumbleweed plant is a native of Central Asia, imported to the U.S. West only a century ago -- to stand by a giant abandoned rocket launch pad in Kazakhstan and watch the tumbleweeds dance in the freezing wind.
There was plenty of decay and abandonment to see. Built 40 years ago as a test range for USSR military missiles and later converted to launching space probes, Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome (deceptively named for a mining village hundreds of kilometers away) has always been hard on its workers. Located in a semi-desert east of the Aral Sea, the area was uninhabited for excellent reasons: it has little water, seasonal extremes of temperature from -45 oC to +55 oC, fierce winds, and barren landscapes. Although the worker's city of Leninsk is located just off the main rail line from all points in Russia to Tashkent, layers of military secrecy and bureaucratic callousness have kept the population feeling isolated and alone.
The collapse of the USSR in 1991 left the cosmodrome deep inside Kazakhstan, a newly independent nation, and Moscow funding for the space center quickly dried up. Many civilian workers, unpaid for months, abandoned their posts. Military draftees sent to do the maintenance work rioted and looted, and even the Russian military space agency VKS has been withdrawing its space workers because it cannot pay them.
By the early 1990s, there was often no heat or running water in workers' homes, no social services from schools to medical care, and only the drabbest items of food in the stores. Security collapsed and Kazakh squatters moved in while looters lurked in the city's outskirts. Public health declined rapidly and diseases spread, especially among the children. The lack of industrial maintenance and trained operators led to a series of deadly disasters, including fires, explosions, and toxic leaks.
Economic uncertainty led to political instability, and in 1994 the popularly elected mayor was replaced by decree from above in an essentially top-down coup by a military officer. His leadership style features public inspiration through nostalgic army songs coupled with public imposition of harsh punishments (including long prison terms) on protesters who can be identified. To many Russian and foreign observers, the cosmodrome's demise has seemed only a matter of time.
During my visit there in March, I met with local journalists and received a copy of the workers' petition sent to the government last year. "The condition of the people is disastrous," the document stated (in my translation). "Systems of power, heat, and water supplies, sewers, and telephone communications are worn out. There are neither means nor materials for maintaining them in proper condition. It's cold in the apartments, drinking water is intermittent, and very often electrical power is off for long periods. The commercial trading network has collapsed. For the inhabitants of the city, life has become a matter of simple self-preservation."
Moscow and Washington space officials and their designated consulting firms ignore or play down such catastrophic reports (they have apparently never seen the petition). They attribute the reports to budgetary gimmicks and to exaggerated tales based on outlying cosmodrome facilities that were shut down when the Buran shuttle program was terminated.
Unlike the members of the official press corps and the NASA officials who were on hand to watch the launch of Soyuz TM-21 last March, I was allowed to walk around the Soyuz launch area unsupervised. Later, when the official foreign delegations were confined to their hotel by a cordon of security patrols, I was at large in the city of Leninsk. Unlike the official visitors, I talked directly to the workers there without interpreters or guides. Inside the Soyuz assembly building, the smell of smoke from last year's fire had long since dissipated, and the physical conditions were neat and clean. In one corner of a room the size of a football field, a skeleton staff checked out the spacecraft next in line for launch to the Mir space station.
In 1990, during my last visit there, when the Soviet space program was still vigorous, three separate spacecraft were in various checkout phases and two more were in temporary storage.
Judging by the amount of reference documentation lying open on the worktables, I estimated the work level had been reduced by fully 80 to 90 percent in the past five years. Officials confirmed to me that "as an economy move" they no longer prepare backup vehicles for flight. A local worker confirmed that it takes longer to prepare each vehicle and that the number of mistakes has been increasing as good workers leave.
Later, after the buses had taken the official foreign delegations back to their guarded hotel 30 km away, I wandered the neighborhood outside this key facility. The abandoned buildings, broken fences (well-worn paths showed the best holes to get through), and thickly strewn junk piles (including shrouds and tanks from the Russians' N-1 moon rocket of the 1960s) reminded me of the worst extremes of U.S. urban decay.
The ruins were not in long-discontinued secondary programs, as the officials bravely insisted; they were in the heart of the cosmodrome village, where my tour group had been given hotel rooms.
Instead of being assigned rooms at the VIP hotels in Leninsk like the official delegations, our commercial group was bunked in the cosmodrome village, on the main road next to the assembly buildings. The museum was on one side of the road and the preserved house once used by program founder Sergey Korolev on the other. For three days I was the first person out the door at dawn, and the last back inside under frozen starry skies. The hotel staff, amused at my enthusiasm, merely suggested I keep my cameras out of view when not using them, but otherwise there were no limits, and I walked for miles in as many directions as possible.
The hotel staff had only one warning. We had already been cautioned not to drink the water and had brought our own bottled supplies. But the staff told us not even to touch the water-either from the taps or from the buckets set next to the toilets-neither to wash, nor wet our hair, nor anything. Local people did, but "they were used to it."
The soldiers on duty talked freely about their hardships, but their most eloquent testimony was quite unintentional. When asked what small gifts they would appreciate most, they requested not luxury goods such as cigarettes but far more basic supplies: tinned foods, if any, or pencils (they dared not even hope for pens).
In the city, the conditions are exactly as the workers' petition had described. Above-ground pipes zig-zag from one building to the next (the ground is so alkaline that a leak from a buried water line would ferociously corrode the pipe). Abandoned apartments, in several groups and sometimes in entire blocks, stare windowless at the dusty sun. Gritty brown powder wafts across the streets and barren ground between the apartment buildings, whirling around groups of seated grandmothers. The dust, blown from the pesticide-laden salt flats of the drying Aral Sea a few hundred kilometers upwind, is gradually poisoning the city's inhabitants, the weakest first. In bitter unanimity, they believe that nobody is going to do anything about it. Somehow the hard-core space workers struggle on, enduring, improvising, cannibalizing, and making-do. Even the youngest workers I talked to admitted to having been here for 12 to 15 years (nobody knew anyone who had come here permanently in the last five years). Members of this fanatic cadre, on average well over 50, have been through so much that no future challenge frightens them. (Their motto: "The difficulties that lie ahead are not as great as those we have already overcome.")
When I explicitly asked what it would take to get young people and their families to live and work at Baikonur, cosmodrome officials expressed their faith that ways will be found, someday, somehow. But they had no specific plans.
I explored these issues face-to-face with cosmodrome commander General Aleksandr Shumilin, in the Leninsk town hall, the only new building to have been completed in recent years. Shumilin is a keen-minded man of about 60 who was called from retirement and promoted over several senior officers to take command of the struggling spaceport two years ago. He has both written and said he has no patience with the foreign "dilettantes" who paint rosy pictures of his situation and accuse him and his staff of falsifying the seriousness of the conditions under which he operates.
His advice to me was a quotation from Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, a cynical cult classic book of the 1920s: "Write only what you see," he advised, "and do not write what you do not see."-J.O.
The most salient feature of the old Soviet space program was itself invisible. It was the secrecy that Moscow wrapped around all its activities-a secrecy designed to mislead, either to allow protection of real technology or to trick foreigners into overestimating the level of Soviet space technology.
Gorbachev's glasnost spread into outer space in the late 1980s, and as communism collapsed, so did the system of deceptions upon which it relied. Old memoirs and photographs flooded the post-Soviet news media, and historical figures stepped forth in battalions to "set the record straight" and-all to often-"to get even" with their now-discredited enemies. Tales of space disasters and debacles flooded the Russian media. Western auction houses offered actual Soviet space vehicles, top secret Soviet space documents, and precious Soviet space memorabilia for cash sales. Commercial tours and news media junkets visited facilities formerly off-limits even to loyal Communists.
For a while, it seemed that information accessibility about the Russian space program had become "normal" by Western standards. True, profit-oriented press offices did ask for cash for pictures and interviews that once were free of charge. But the old Soviet-style pattern of using "news" as a weapon in an ideological struggle was still much in evidence.
Now, in the last year or two, a new wave of Russian space secrecy has been in evidence. For a different array of reasons, including commercial advantage, some of the same old abuses have resurfaced. Distortions, omissions, cover-ups, and exaggerations are again widespread, and the saddest aspect is that often the Russians have new partners in crime, their U.S. space allies. Several incidents illustrate some clandestine efforts.
The issue here is a lack of openness, not the incidence of accidents that are common in most high-tech enterprises (for example, the widely publicized death of several Kennedy Space Center workers in a nitrogen environment 16 years ago). In my estimation, the resumption of this kind of secrecy, and the level of tolerance it has received from Russia's new "international partners," suggests a disturbing trend that threatens the trust required for such a complex global project. -J.O.
A barometer of Russian space activities
The most reliable barometer of the health of the Russian space program may be the Kosmos Pavilion exhibit hall in Moscow. For a quarter of a century, its condition and the mood of the crowds milling past its exhibits have accurately reflected the Russian treatment of space activities.
When I first visited the Kosmos Pavilion as a graduate student in 1968, it was one of several dozen buildings in a major theme park boasting of the successes of socialism. The space hardware was shiny, the paintings of heroes were brightly lit, and the faces of the many visitors glowed with smiles. Spectacular space activity symbolized future prosperity in the eyes of the viewers.
Twenty years passed before my next trip there. This time it was evident that the neglect and stagnation of the Brezhnev era had been overwhelming. The hall's rotunda area had been cleared, because the roof leaked and parts of the ceiling had fallen on visitors. The windows were dirty and the lights were dim. Cynicism and apathy seemed to me to be the dominant public moods, except for those who were outright hostile to expensive space projects that had never shown any practical benefit. The thin crowds thronged into a side hall to see a cheerful temporary show on UFOs.
By this past March, during my visit for IEEE Spectrum, the main exhibits in the Kosmos Pavilion were not about space activities at all. The entire park, once called the Exhibit of Economic Achievements, had become the All-Russian Exhibit Center, which now concentrates on commercial products. The Kosmos Pavilion was full of automobiles and sailboats on display for potential buyers, and the space hardware had been shoved over to the side of the hall or into the smaller, out-of-the-way side halls.
Handfuls of shuffling loyalists were peering at the spacecraft, their expressions unmistakably wistful and nostalgic. The looks on their faces reminded me of nothing so much as the way modern Greeks and Italians view archeological exhibits on the vanished glories of Athens and Rome. -J.O.
About the author
Jim Oberg is a veteran engineer in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's manned space program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He has followed the Russian space program since before the launch of Sputnik in his youth. His 1981 book, Red Star in Orbit, was billed as the first inside look at the Russian program. Twice Oberg has won the Robert Goddard Space History prize for his analyses of secret Russian projects, all confirmed two decades later after the opening of sources followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years he has made several expeditions to the heart of Russia's space facilities: as an advisor to CBS News for "Sixty Minutes," as a host for the Public Broadcasting System's "Nova" miniseries on "The Russian Right Stuff," as a special consultant to Sotheby's auctions of Russian space memorabilia, and as a reporter for IEEE Spectrum in March. He is a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society, and the first foreign member of Russia's new Academy of Cosmonautics.
The assessments Oberg makes in this article are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization.
To probe further
Mir Hardware Heritage, by David S.F. Portree, (NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, NASA RP 1357, March 1995) is an accurate technical catalogue of the history of Russian-manned space hardware.
An overview of the political and diplomatic context of the International Space Station and similar projects is given in U.S.-Russian Cooperation in Space (Office of Technology Assessment, OTA-ISS-618, Washington, D.C., April 1985, ISBN 0-16-048019-1).
From the First Satellite to Energiya-Buran and Mir, by Vyacheslav M. Filin et al. (Energiya Rocket and Space Corp., Kaliningrad, Moscow, Russia, 1994), is a hard-to-find reference with space history and many never-before-seen views of hardware.
The latest in a series of assessments of the Russian space effort is Europe and Asia in Space, 1991-1992, by Nicholas L. Johnson and David M. Rodvold (Kaman Sciences Corp., Colorado Springs, Colo., 1993).
A realistic assessment of the prospects and pitfalls for a joint U.S.-Russian program is "The Space Station Program: Progress and Challenges," by Marcia S. Smith, Science Policy Research Division, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, from Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, U.S. Senate, May 23, 1995.
Red Star in Orbit, by James Oberg (Random House, New York, 1981), is a popular reconstruction of the activities behind Soviet space secrecy, mostly confirmed by later post-USSR revelations.
A Russian's assessment of his country's situation is given in "Current Status of Russian Space Program and its Implications to Global Cooperation and Competition," by Maxim V. Tarasenko. It was paper No. IAA-95-IAA.3.3.01, presented Oct. 2-6, 1995, at the 46th International Astronautical Congress, in Oslo, Norway; contact the International Astronautical Federation, 3-5, rue Marlo-Nikis, 75015, Paris, France.
A thorough account of the short-lived Buran program is given by historian of experimental aviation Henry Matthews in The Secret Story of the Soviet Space Shuttle, (X-Planes Books, Beirut, Lebanon, 1994). It can be ordered from Walter Roberts, 131 Alameda Ave., Fircrest, WA 98466.
A comprehensive history of the Russian manned space program from the beginning up to early Mir is given in the 392-page Almanac of Soviet Manned Space Flight, by Dennis Newkirk (Gulf Publishing Co., Houston, Texas, 1990).
Spectrum editor: Trudy E. Bell
Posted on this site by permission of author. © James Oberg.
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