The spectacular success of Russia's space-mirror test a month ago was doubly amazing to most Western observers. First, almost everyone was astonished to learn that Russia still has a manned space station. Second, people were equally astonished that the Russian-manned orbital expeditions have continued for so long.
The Mir space station has been circling Earth for years. Launched in 1986, it has been occupied continuously since mid-1989 by successive teams of cosmonauts. Its equipment has demonstrated a reliability and maintainability as good as the level that America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration hopes to obtain on its own space station, still on the drawing boards.
American space engineers who visit Moscow return with reports of sound, intelligent space hardware in everyday use in space. For example, the Russian space station recycles all water and all oxygen through a rugged, efficient regenerative life-support system.
A carbon dioxide recycler, still in the experimental state in the West, is already packaged for delivery to the Russian station. A respectable array of astrophysical and medical instruments are in operation, along with some promising experiments. The station can also host engineering demonstrations such as the "space mirror."
Mir is not immune from aging. Solar radiation is gradually weakening the station's power system, requiring major efforts to upgrade them in the near future. Its control equipment is wearing out, requiring many spacewalks for repair and replacement. But it appears reasonable to expect the station to orbit for another four to 10 years.
While Russia faces tremendous privation and upheaval, space engineers struggle to preserve their continuous manned space presence. The Russians seem to realize that space technology is the key to the industries of the next century. They have decided that they literally cannot afford not to have a manned space program. But given the abysmal quality and quantity of available information on their efforts, no wonder Western observers have been so surprised.
Late in January the Russians launched a new crew to Mir and landed the previous crew on Earth a week later. The returning commander became the seventh human (all Russians) to accumulate more than a year of time living in space. No mention of the launch, link-up, or landing was noticeable on the three main American TV network news programs.
The most recent such event, and the last time that Russian space activity reached the Western consciousness, was the media-manufactured crisis involving the so-called "marooned cosmonaut." Late in 1991, television commentators tensely described the terrible state of a lost Russian spaceman, "literally stranded in space," watching his country disintegrate, utterly isolated and totally unable to return home.
It may have been a good made-for-TV docudrama, but it was lousy reporting. The cosmonaut was never alone and never trapped. His colleague and he always had a working spaceship docked to their station, standing by to land if need be. Because of political negotiations, the cosmonaut's original return ticket had to be handed over to a space visitor from Kazakhstan, the new owner of the ex-Soviet launch center. The Russian cosmonaut merely had to remain in space an additional tour of duty. This was inconvenient and even stressful to him, to be sure, but hardly life threatening.
He returned safely, recovered fully, and now is in Houston, training for a United States space shuttle mission. Meanwhile, his successors fly on in orbit.
There probably aren't 100 people in North America who know their names, much less what they are doing, or why their country --- for all its troubles -- has sacrificed so much to send them up there. Such knowledge could be crucial to the upcoming round of political debate on whether the U.S., unlike Russia, is too poor to run a manned space station.
James Oberg is a professional space engineer and a specialist on Russian aerospace. This article first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.