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Trouble In Star City
Part of Oberg Corner

RKK Energia

RKK Energia
Main entrance (security check) of RKK Energia complex. Vostok rocket looms in background.
Credit: © Mark Wade

James Oberg's prescient account of the beginning of the end - or the end of the beginning - of the Soviet space industry

by James Oberg

From 'Final Frontier', January-February 1990
Reprinted in
Lawrence Lorimer, Editorial Director
Franklin Watts, 1991 / ISBN 0-7172-1524-1

1999 note: This article was written ten years ago based in part on a visit to Star City with a "60 Minutes" news crew for a story on cosmonaut training that later was cancelled. I forecast the cancellation of the Buran shuttle program and warned of further collapse of the Soviet space infrastructure based on a massive public backlash released under 'glasnost'. One politician strongly against space expenditures was Boris Yeltsin. This article has definitely improved with age!

Twenty years apart, I made two visits to the Soviet Union's main space museum in Moscow. The first was in 1968, at a time when the Space Race was in full swing. The U.S.S.R. appeared to be winning, and the bloom was on the rose. At the Park of Economic Achievements in northern Moscow, the Kosmos Pavilion was bright with the summer sunshine and the smiling faces of thousands who thronged past the rows of futuristic space machines. This was their future, worth sacrificing for, and they knew the world envied them.

In 1989 I hiked through early-spring slush and late-afternoon gloom to revisit the same shrine. The long, dingy hall had the aura of a forgotten tomb. The colossal rotunda area was cordoned off, its collapsing central dome a hazard to stragglers who wandered amid the dust and rust, seeking nostalgic glories. Through a double door, a small side hall offered a colorful, brightly lit exhibit on flying saucers and ESP. Grim-faced out-of-town Soviet tourists broke into grins of glee as they entered the world of the paranormal, leaving the disappointments of reality behind.

The same space program that in decades past produced the triumphs of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin is currently undergoing a major shift in the way it is viewed by the Soviet people. Once demigods, space heroes have been brought low in the public's estimation. Their achievements, once a source of infinite pride, now elicit resentment. While a statue of Gagarin at the cosmonaut training center at Star City is always graced with flowers left by cosmonaut colleagues or by respectful official visitors, another statue located on a major Moscow thoroughfare--an idealized human figure with sweeping lines representing unbounded flight--was derided by one cynical Soviet observer as the triumph of socialism: "Man turned into machine." There never are any flowers.

How well the Soviet space program can survive this demythologizing is as yet unpredictable. International critics have long regarded the Soviet Union as a Third World nation with pockets of isolated high technology. On the world stage, the sprawling country would amount to little were it not for its nuclear weapons, Olympic athletes, ballet stars--and space vehicles. The current widespread opposition to space activities has therefore baffled many foreign observers.

Sacred Cows?

Space, after all, has been an authentic subject for national pride. In space the Soviets were indeed first, particularly in the late 1950s, when the West ate their dust year after glorious year. Here, at least, Communist dogma was becoming true, as the self-styled most advanced society on Earth led humanity's expansion into the universe. The ideological value of space preeminence was profound, and official Soviet art reflected this parareligious theme: paintings of space heroes were done in styles derivative of Florentine triptychs and cathedral bas-reliefs.

True, the multiple Space Race losses of the 1970s--when Americans beat the Soviets to the Moon, to a space station, to a robot landing on Mars, and finally to a reusable space shuttle-- did disconcert those better informed among the general public. A few isolated dissidents cried out for "Bread, not Sputniks!'' But the state-run news media were consistently upbeat: spaceflight was good for the U.S.S.R., and nobody thought differently.

"For decades, cosmonautics was considered almost a sacred cow of the economy," wrote Izvestiya's space correspondent, Sergey Leskov, in March 1989. "To argue about the cost of supporting it was considered wrong and unpatriotic."

Recently, however, despite record-setting flights on the Mir space station and successful tests of the Energia superbooster and a prototype shuttle, the bubble of public approval has burst. Suddenly there are arguments everywhere.

The vigorously pro-perestroika weekly Arguments and Facts published a letter from a group of health workers in Shakhty, a mining city in the Ukraine.

"When will all this 'peaceful exploration of space' come to an end?" they demanded. "It is impossible to remain undisturbed seeing people's money go down the drain! Come down from the heavens to our sinful earth! There is no sugar, soap, drugs. ... Shame! Mother Russia has remained as backwards as it used to be!"

Antispace Hullabaloo

On Cosmonautics Day, the anniversary of Gagarin's first flight, the labor daily TRUD reported that its mail was ten to one in favor of sharp cutbacks in space expenditures. Some readers even called for a complete cutoff of funds, asking, "Why do we need a space program if we don't have sufficient means for priority needs here on Earth, and if millions of people living below the poverty line cannot make ends meet?"

Those letters echo complaints heard widely during the national election campaigns in March 1989. Maverick Moscow politician Boris Yeltsin was the loudest, but not the most extreme: "I'm not saying we should abandon space research, just stretch it out,'' he explained, calling for a five- to seven-year delay in many major projects. Yeltsin swept 90 percent of the vote.

On the TV program "Moscow News" in August 1989, during a candid roundtable discussion on the value of space exploration, science editor Leonard Nikishin offered a credible explanation for the vehemence of the negative outbursts when he said: "Where do these extreme views come from--the total, angry denial of the need for 'useless' spending on space? I believe that, not least of all, this is a consequence of well-nigh universal irritation over the hullabaloo of many years about our 'space victories.' But the people lived in a different world. They were short of too many good things of life to take these victories close to heart."

Not all the criticism has come from outside. Joining the chorus of dissent have been several voices from within the Soviet space hierarchy. Cosmonaut training director Vladimir Shatalov, a three-time space veteran, has bemoaned the lack of long-range planning and the absence of industrial follow-through to space research. Space scientists, after two Phobos probes failed to complete their missions to the moons of Mars in 1989, blamed mismanagement in the Soviet space bureaucracy.

Idle Curiosity?

Ironically, it is the scientists who have become the target of misaimed public anger. For decades the real purpose of space shots in the Kosmos series had been camouflaged by deceptive announcements about "scientific instruments for the exploration of outer space," when most actually were military in nature--spy satellites, weapons-control systems, or actual weapons tests. Many others were for civil applications such as weather and navigation, or for testing prototype hardware. Only a handful of space missions were really for science.

Yet the Soviet public came to perceive scientists as draining the public treasury out of idle curiosity, with no practical benefits to show. For their part, the scientists couldn't explain that most satellites called "scientific" were really for the military, since that was--and even under glasnost, still remains--a state secret.

Leading spacecraft designer Konstantin Feoktistov, himself a space traveler in 1964, said in the "Moscow News" roundtable: "A mere 1 percent of (annual expenditures) goes for 'strictly' scientific research by space specialists." Yet, Feoktistov sadly observed, "In the eyes of ordinary people, it has turned into a devourer of incalculable sums."

Official unwillingness to admit the exact amount of space expenditures has itself caused mistrust. Even Izvestiya complained that Soviet space budgets are not published, which negatively affects public attitudes toward space. "When (the sum) is not named, you inevitably imagine astronomic appropriations which, when you look at empty store counters, you cannot help wanting to cut," the paper editorialized.

"Incalculable Sums"

How much do the "incalculable sums" spent on space programs amount to? General M. Moiseyev, chief of staff of Soviet armed forces, told Pravda in June 1989 that the Soviet Union allocated 6.9 billion rubles (about $4 billion) to all space expenditures in 1989, of which 3.9 billion were for military, 1.7 billion for research, and 1.3 billion for the Buran space shuttle. In the past four years, the manned Mir/Soyuz program has allegedly cost only 1.47 billion rubles, while the multimodular Mir space station has cost 1.7 billion rubles alone over the course of 13 years. According to Feoktistov, "During the 30 years of manned spaceflights, we have spent about 6 billion rubles on them."

But these figures seem suspiciously low, even at the official exchange rate of 0.6 rubles to a dollar (the black-market rate is about eight to 10 rubles to the dollar). This should hardly be surprising, since the primary intent in publishing them was to show the public that the space program doesn't cost that much after all.

Any comparison of American and Soviet space budgets must take into account that Soviet workers are paid far less than their American counterparts. By keeping salaries low, the government squeezes enormous amounts of rubles for its space budget out of workers. Another factor in any budget comparison is hidden costs. The operating costs of many Soviet ministries that support the space industry-including those responsible for the acquisition and preprocessing of materials--have their own budgets, which are an invisible subsidy to the space effort. It may be that the Soviet economy is so disorganized that no one, not even Soviet leaders, knows how much is really being spent on space activity. But it is probably twice the official tally, possibly even more. The economic burden is therefore far higher than the published figures admit, and the public's intuition is more accurate than the government's bookkeeping.

Buran Space Shuttle

The other side of the ledger--economic benefits to those on Earth--has been equally grim. The government lists miraculous "spin-off" products from the space program, which, the ordinary Soviet people realize all too bitterly, nobody can buy.

So, in its hunger for a better standard of living, the Soviet public has made space spending a target of ire. At a time when the Gorbachev regime grapples with serious economic problems, the space program seems especially vulnerable. Major cuts to the space budget would give Gorbachev some breathing room, and would be immensely popular.

But where could the cuts come from? With spokesmen boasting that satellites augment the effectiveness of Soviet armed forces by 150 to 200 percent, military space programs seem immune. So do applications satellites, which apparently are able to eke out genuine profits. Space science doesn't spend enough to save much by canceling it. And the Mir space station-assuming new modules are added on successfully-also can make a good case for funding. One last program stands out as an ideal sacrificial victim: the Buran space shuttle.

Buran made its debut in 1988 with a successful -- and completely automated --orbital flight. But even before any cosmonauts have flown it, the program has come under fire. Last spring a space correspondent for the daily newspaper Socialist Industry asked the shuttle's chief designer, "Why do we need Buran? The goals achieved by this truly marvelous machine are still unseen. Aren't we being dragged into a senseless and wasteful race?" The chief designer was not allowed to make a coherent reply, except to admit the spaceship was a bit ahead of its time.

Space scientist Konstantin Gringauz, in Izvestiya, was even more cynical: "It is not easy to answer the question of why we need this system at this particular time. ... In my opinion, it cannot be ruled out that the main reason for the creation of the Energia-Buran system was the desire of the (ministryl to assert itself, and not the real needs of the country and of science."

Other space scientists see Buran as the enemy. Roald Sagdeyev, formerly head of the Soviet space-science establishment and an adviser to Gorbachev, told "Moscow News" that the entire Buran program was a mistake: "Even today Buran consumes the lion's share of expenses in the space budget ... but it seems to me that even the crudest economic estimates of the necessary missions give an unambiguous answer. I am all in favor of disposable syringes, and against reusable Buran."

In the same interview, manned-spacecraft designer Feoktistov concurred. He mocked the idea of using Buran to recover precious satellites. "Any, even the most sophisticated spacecraft, is far cheaper than one flight of Buran ... (yet) we have stubbornly continued spending money on this hopeless affair."

No Ideological Arguments

Notably lacking in official responses to this groundswell of disaffection are the ideological pronouncements and appeals to national pride and glory. Instead, officials turn to bottom-line cost accounting of profits and losses. Spaceflight, they say, is supposed to show a profit.

Since 1975, according to space officials, about 14 billion rubles have been spent on the entire Buran program. At the same time, developing Buran supposedly led to more than 400 major technological breakthroughs, with revolutionary implications for Soviet industry and world trade. But in order to realize those benefits, the Soviets must overcome a system that has shown itself immune to innovation and to efficient use of technology. And they must correct misconceptions about American space costs and benefits, such as widespread Soviet belief that the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) fully recouped the cost of the Apollo program by selling space-technology patents to private industry.

Supporters of the Buran program have painted themselves into a corner by stressing its value as a pathfinder of new technology rather than a crucial piece of a national space-transportation system--which it clearly isn't, since the Soviets have other means of sending people and cargo into orbit. Ironically, the major economic benefit of Buran may lie in the scientists and engineers who created it, and the best way to realize a "spin-off" from the project could be to cancel it altogether and reassign personnel to other Soviet industries. Buran's termination would simultaneously mollify a hostile public and an embittered scientific establishment.

Speaking to the Congress of Deputies, Mikhail Gorbachev stressed his acceptance of the profit motive for space spending: "The latest developments made during the Buran project alone could have significant benefit--worth billions of rubles--if they are passed on to national economic enterprises and organizations," he said. "One must bear in mind that only if that happens will the money we spend to master space be justified."

But with an aroused public demanding action, space is a handy scapegoat, already tried and convicted by public opinion. If space spending takes the blame for the deeper maladies that afflict Soviet industry, cutting it may be the wrong cure. Buran and other projects would be strangled for short-term political benefits, which would be followed only by deeper economic collapse. It is not an auspicious forecast.

Meanwhile, Soviet space officials will have to learn how to answer the question that has long plagued their American counterparts: Is the space program worth it?

Posted on this site by permission of author. © James Oberg.

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