Russian space program may take off again


MOSCOW -- The technicians and cosmonauts working in Russia's once-glorious space program were laboring in obscurity a week ago, ignored by the world they had once astonished.

Today, the fate of the $100 billion International Space Station, and the three crew members aboard, depends on those same scientists and engineers, working to figure out how to keep the station in orbit and the crew alive during the months to come.

"Every section of our organization, every department knows what should be done in an emergency such as this," said Aleksandr Aleksandrov, chief of flight testing services for Energia, the government-controlled company that runs Russia's manned space programs.

After the loss Saturday of the space shuttle Columbia, NASA grounded all shuttle flights indefinitely. That means Russia's cramped but reliable Soyuz capsules are the only available means for ferrying crews to and from the station. Russia's Progress unmanned supply ships, with cargo capacities of about 5 tons, are the only available spacecraft for delivering supplies.

The bottle-shaped Progress craft are also the only vehicles capable of periodically nudging the station back up into its designated orbit, to prevent it from catastrophically re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

Russia's cash-starved space program could suddenly receive hundreds of millions of dollars. It is possible that it could also resurrect its own space shuttle, the Buran, a spacecraft largely copied from NASA's unclassified shuttle blueprints of the 1970s and 1980s.

At the very least, Russian space scientists and engineers will again be in the spotlight.

What is remarkable, though, isn't the potential revival of Russia's space industry but its near-demise. The Soviet Union sent the first satellite into orbit. It lofted the first animal, man and woman into space. It was the first to crash an unmanned spacecraft on the moon. A Soviet cosmonaut was the first to walk in space.

But when the Soviet Union crashed, it took the space program with it.

"Everyone was thinking that it all belonged to the old Soviet Russia, and the new Russia didn't need it," Leonid Gorshkov, deputy director of space programs for Energia, said yesterday. "The 1990s were a hard time."

Russia's space dominance began with the launch of Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957. Before Washington even knew there was a space race, Russia was ahead. That launch was quickly followed by others, culminating in the first manned space flight, by former fighter pilot Col. Yuri Gagarin in April 1961.

The 'Chief Designer'

These triumphs were masterminded by Soviet space pioneer Sergei P. Korolev -- a veteran of Stalin's gulag who studied captured V-2 rockets in Germany after World War II. By the time he became the top Soviet rocket scientist, Korolev's name was a state secret: He was referred to only as the "Chief Designer."

Gagarin was another matter. The 27-year old test pilot instantly became a Soviet hero and still enjoys an Elvis-like popularity here. His 108-minute flight might have served as the high mark of Soviet international prestige.

In response to Russia's successes, President John F. Kennedy pledged to put men on the moon. Confident Soviet scientists eagerly took up the challenge but, according to Gorshkov, quickly started to lose ground.

Soviet science of the time lacked the resources, and the technical sophistication, to solve the daunting problems presented by a moon mission. In particular, engineers had trouble developing a suitable rocket.

"We had failure after failure," said Gorshkov, who began his career at Energia as a junior engineer in the late 1960s and later became its chief designer. American astronauts walked on the moon in July 1969. By then, it was clear the Soviets would rather quit the race than come in second.

But since there was still civilian and military interest in manned missions, a team that included Gorshkov started designing the world's first space station, on Dec. 31, 1969. Borrowing from the design for a secret military project, the engineers built the space station Salyut ("salute"), its name a gesture to the memory of Gagarin, who died in a March 1968 air crash.

Salyut's first three-man crew arrived in June 1971, then headed back to Earth. By the time their capsule reached land, all three men had suffocated. Their capsule had depres- surized in the upper atmosphere, losing all its oxygen.

The Soviet program had already survived other tragedies, some of them hushed up by authorities. A series of Salyut stations were launched, and in 1979 two cosmonauts spent six months in space, smashing every endurance record.

"When we were making the first Salyut station, the longest cosmonauts stayed in space was 18 days," Gorshkov said. "We were very proud."

NASA, meanwhile, completed a series of Apollo moon missions, conducted scientific experiments aboard the small space station called Skylab and launched its shuttle program.

Russian started designing its Buran space shuttle and building a bigger, longer-lasting space station -- Mir. Its first section was sent into space in April 1986.

"Mir was the peak of our achievements," said Gorshkov. "After it was launched, we came to realize what faults it had, and what kind of improvements we should have made." It remained in orbit 15 years, proving itself one of the most durable spacecraft in history.

The weakness in the Soviet economy finally caught up with the space program in 1989 when the Kremlin began slashing the budget, and the cutting accelerated during the economic chaos of the 1990s. The Buran flew just once.

Government officials were deaf to the pleas of the space program. "It was not only that they were less interested," Gorshkov said. "It was worse. They put up obstacles to stop developments in this field."

At about the same time, NASA was having trouble getting money for a space station from Congress. Sensing an opportunity, Russian space officials approached their American counterparts in 1993.

The two space communities had been working together on and off since the era of detente in the early 1970s. They decided to collaborate on one of the biggest public works projects in history, the International Space Station.

While designing the new station, Russian engineers gamely struggled to keep Mir in orbit. Short of money, they charged a Japanese television network $12 million for allowing a journalist to travel to the station. They produced ads aboard the vehicle and considered having a feature film made there.

"I didn't like it very much," Gorshkov said. "But it is something unavoidable."

Mir suffered a series of technical failures. There was a fire aboard in 1997, followed quickly by a collision with a Progress cargo ship. The crash destroyed solar panels and punctured the hull. The crew saved the spacecraft, but it required months of repairs.

End of the line

Even the Russian genius for getting by, making do, couldn't keep Mir flying. In 2001, technicians at the Russian Mission Control Center steered the abandoned station out of orbit and into the upper atmosphere over the Pacific, where it broke up in a shower of fiery debris.

Construction had been begun on the International Space Station, drawing financial and technical support from Europe, Canada and Japan as well as the United States and Russia. The first station component -- a Russian-made Zvezda module -- was launched in 1998.

Russia's manned space program then seemed to lose its remaining luster. The space shuttle did all the glamorous work: delivering astronauts and most supplies to the space station, as well as construction supplies.

A Soyuz is always kept docked to the station for use as an escape vehicle, but it has a limited life in orbit. Twice a year, cosmonauts fly a replacement module to the International Space Station, occasionally with a tourist aboard paying about $20 million for the flight. About six times a year, Russia dispatches unmanned Progress cargo vehicles to the station, as it did Sunday.

Until the Columbia disaster, Americans showed little interest in shuttle flights. With few manned missions of their own, Russians cared even less.

"We would like the Russian media to cover more of the international space programs, but there is no interest," complained a spokesman for the Russian Aviation and Space Agency.

Money from the U.S.

That could soon change.

Russia's manned space program might expand rapidly in the next few months. The United States, which pays for most of the costs of the space station, could order several new Soyuz and Progress vehicles.

Some scientists are even talking about reviving the Buran. They say they still have all the necessary launch equipment and a warehouse full of spare parts.

Talks between NASA and Energia about expanding Russia's role were expected to begin this week.

Gorshkov, now in charge of planning a manned mission to Mars, has watched his agency shrink. During the 1990s, he said, college graduates didn't want to work for impoverished state agencies.

Russia's space effort might revive now, he said, but the future lies in nations working together, not in a resumption of a space race: "Such huge programs as the flight of man to Mars, of course, should be a joint one."

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