Russia unites with America in grief

Sun Foreign Staff

KOROLYOV, Russia - Some appeared red-eyed and anguished, others stoic and somber. They spoke different languages and saluted different flags.

But the Russian and American space explorers who gathered at Russia's Mission Control Center here yesterday were united in their grief. All had known at least some of the seven crew members - six Americans and one Israeli - who died Saturday aboard the space shuttle Columbia.

Amid prayers, a few tears and the playing of three national anthems - American, Israeli and Russian - the astronauts, cosmonauts and others at yesterday's memorial service sought solace from their colleagues. A similar ceremony is scheduled for today at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"I have lost a good friend," said Valery I. Tokarev, a Russian air force colonel and cosmonaut who flew with Rick Husband - Columbia's commander - aboard the shuttle Discovery in May 1999.

Husband commanded Discovery on that mission. Tokarev rode along to help begin construction of the $100 billion international space station. The orbiting lab is a joint project of many nations. But only two - one-time rivals Russia and the United States - have put humans in space.

Like many in the tight-knit space community, Tokarev and Husband spent months together. They trained for the mission in Houston and at Star City, the Russian space training center. They commuted to meetings in the same jet trainer and talked about many things, including what they loved best: their work.

"He was an excellent pilot," said the 49-year-old cosmonaut, "an excellent specialist." Tokarev said he felt as though he, too, had lost a member of his family.

Met on Mir

Pavel "Pasha" Vinogradov, also 49, was a flight engineer aboard the Mir space station when the space shuttle Endeavour delivered tons of supplies in January 1998. One of the mission specialists on Endeavour was Michael Anderson, who died on Columbia.

Life on the Mir was hectic. But in a spare moment Anderson pointed out a porthole as they passed over North America and showed the crew where he was born, Plattsburgh, N.Y., Vinogradov recalled. "I tried to show him the place where I was born, Magadan, but it was too far north. It was impossible to see from Mir's orbit."

That week spent in the cramped, cluttered Mir was the start of a long friendship. "I knew Michael well, and our families became good friends," Vinogradov said. "My wife is now in Houston. I talked with her yesterday. She was on her way to visit Michael's family" and pay her respects.

Undeterred by disaster

Michael Foale, a veteran American astronaut, has spent the past three weeks at Star City, where he and five other astronauts and cosmonauts are training to fly to the international space station on a mission that is now in doubt.

Foale recalled turning on his television Saturday after returning from skiing and seeing what looked like "beautiful meteorites" crossing the sky. "What I saw was actually some of our dreams falling," he said.

The veteran astronaut, an astrophysicist, is no stranger to the hazards of space travel. He was aboard the Mir in 1997 when it was struck and heavily damaged by an errant unmanned Russian cargo rocket bringing supplies.

After Saturday's accident, Foale said, he spoke with his family, including a daughter in Houston who is a playmate of the children of some of the astronauts who were aboard Columbia. He wanted to know whether they wanted him to remain an astronaut.

He decided to remain in the program. So did all five other others training at Star City after similar soul-searching.

Even those who couldn't attend the memorial paid their respects at the vast, echoing control center.

About 20 engineers stood at their consoles, watching telemetry from an unmanned Progress rocket that lifted off Sunday loaded with supplies for the space station. It's scheduled to dock with the station today.

But there was one change in routine at mission control. Instead of an orbital map showing the location of the Progress and the space station, a billboard-size picture of Columbia's crew was projected on the central screen.

Sorrow and fear

Among the Russian scientists and explorers yesterday, sorrow was mixed with fear. Many here suspect that the space station's critics will use the disaster to kill the program and in the process sever Russia's last link to manned space flight, whose history began when Yuri Gagarian became the first man to orbit the earth in April 1961.

Russia's space program, while far smaller than in Soviet days, employs tens of thousands of engineers, scientists and other staff. They are scattered in state agencies and contractors across Russia and in several other former Soviet states.

Valery V. Ryumin, a former cosmonaut and the director of the space station for Energia, Russia's state-controlled aerospace company, showed up for the ceremony looking tired.

There were "various prospects" for the future of the international space station, he said in an interview. But he didn't want to contemplate the "gloomy" ones.

"We believe we should go on," he said. "We should think hard about how to go on working at the station. I am an optimist, and I always hope for the better. If you hope for the worst, why should you live at all?"

The nation's $125 million-a-year manned space flight program is already hanging by a thread. It was on the verge of shutting down last year.

"The threat was that the money would run out and that would stop the program," said Aleksandr Aleksandrov, a former cosmonaut who runs Energia's flight testing services. "And such a threat is still there."

Russia's space efforts could expand significantly if the United States and other nations decide to use Russian technology to keep the space station operating. But few here seem to think that will happen.

"The expansion can happen only if there is enough time and enough money," Aleksandrov said. "And the question is where the money will come from."

NASA optimistic

In contrast with their Russian counterparts, the Bush administration and NASA officials sounded optimistic yesterday about both the investigation into the causes of the Columbia disaster and the prospects for the resumption of shuttle flights.

U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow said in an interview that the White House's commitment to the space station "remains strong."

During the ceremony, he offered his Russian hosts more reassurance.

"We look forward to the day the space shuttle returns to space," he said. "That will be the day we truly honor the memory of the men and women of the space shuttle Columbia. It is challenging work. It is dangerous work. It is honorable work."

Kenneth Cockrell, director of NASA's operations at Star City, reminded the other mourners that they have a lot of work ahead of them - and a lot of responsibility.

"We have people in orbit now who need our support, and the support of the international space community," he said, referring to the two American astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut aboard the space station. "We need to maintain our focus on keeping this part of the space program operating safely. We must be ready to make the changes that will be necessary because of this tragedy."

NASA's optimistic, forward-looking message was best summed up, perhaps, by Philip Cleary, director of the agency's Moscow liaison office.

"We will get to the bottom of this," he said. "We will fix it, and we will get flying again."

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