A career as a cosmonaut — once the dream job of a lifetime for millions in this country — is increasingly less attractive because it is no longer the ticket to international fame or a fortune. As a result, the pool of qualified candidates for positions in Russia’s cosmonaut corps is shrinking, experts said.
“In the 1960s one would dream of becoming a cosmonaut, now the young men are dreaming of becoming bankers,” said Sergei Shamsutdinov, an editor at the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine, which is published “under the aegis” of the Federal Space Agency and the Space Forces. “The romantic aspect of the manned space exploration is no longer there; it has been replaced by gray daily routine,” Shamsutdinov told Space News in a recent telephone interview.
More importantly, Shamsutdinov said, the current members of the Russian cosmonaut corps are far lower in the social hierarchy than they used to be in Soviet times.
Today their salaries are dwarfed by the hefty paychecks available to those working in the private sector. As a result, Shamsutdinov said, fewer students of the top Russian colleges such as the Moscow Bauman State Technical University, Moscow Aviation University and Moscow Engineering Physics Institute — the schools that traditionally educated future cosmonauts — are interested in joining the next generation of Russian cosmonauts.
“These universities offer very good, fundamental education, which is in demand among employers in the private sector,” he said.
Russia currently has a total of 37 cosmonauts in three separate cosmonaut units managed by the rocket company Energia of Korolev, the Institute for Medical Biological Research in Moscow and the Russian Air Force.
Energia has 15 cosmonauts, while the institute has two. The Air Force, which also manages the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, has 17, according to Shamsutdinov. In addition, Yuri Shargin is with the Russian Space Forces, Sergei Moshchenko works at the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, and Sergei Zhukov is director general of the space agency's Center for Technology Transfer, according to Shamsutdinov.
While Air Force pilots still display strong interest in joining the Russian military’s Cosmonaut Unit because it leads to an increase in pay, qualified civilians are not as interested, given the opportunities in the private sector, Shamsutdinov said.
Russian cosmonauts are paid a monthly wage of less than $767 (20,448 Russian rubles) a month and also receive bonuses for flights.
Little success in recruitment
Since the latest campaign to enroll new members into Energia’s cosmonaut unit began in 2005, the organization’s managers have had little success convincing employees to apply, Shamsutdinov said.
Facing lack of interest in manned exploration from its own employees, Energia has launched a program that allows students to apply for membership in its cosmonaut corps even before graduation. A delegation led by Alexander Alexandrov, chief of the flight service at Energia, has toured several Moscow universities to try to attract students, but only students at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute displayed interest, according to Shamsutdinov.
Twenty students volunteered in early 2006, but only five ended up undergoing medical tests at the Institute for Medical Biological Research. None of them passed the tests, Shamsutdinov said.
Nevertheless, Energia did manage to tap one young talent. Nikolai Tikhonov, a 24-year-old graduate of the Moscow Aviation Institute and currently an Energia employee, passed all medical tests and was cleared by a government commission in October to begin training at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center along with Elena Serova.
Serova, 30, is also an employee of Energia and would become the first female added to Russia’s cosmonaut corps since 2004, according to Shamsutdinov.
Thousands in line, once upon a time
In an interview with the Russian edition of Newsweek in October, Pavel Vinogradov, commander of Energia’s cosmonaut unit, acknowledged the drop in interest. “I cannot say there is no one at all, but it is very different from the times when we had thousands standing in line,” Vinogradov told the magazine.
Vinogradov’s deputy and renowned Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri also acknowledged that fewer young men and women are interested in applying to become cosmonauts.
“Of course, we are no match for bankers,” Kaleri, who is deputy commander of Energia’s cosmonaut unit, said in an Oct. 27 interview with Space News. Kaleri also blamed the Russian media “for throwing stones at the manned space exploration, speculating that there is no longer as much need for it as there used to be.”
In spite of the lessened interest, Russia has “more than enough” cosmonauts to meet the current requirement of three cosmonauts per year for the Russian segment of the international space station, Kaleri said. Should the requirement grow to six people for the space station a year as originally planned, the current personnel strength of the Russian cosmonaut corps still would be sufficient, Kaleri said, but with only a few in reserve.
Better chances for flight
On the positive side, those who are already in the cosmonaut corps are now more likely to fly to space, given the diminishing competition, Shamsutdinov said. While some of the Soviet-era cosmonauts would retire without ever flying to space, the current members of the corps have to wait an average of 10 to 15 years until they log their first flight, according to Shamsutdinov.
And Kaleri expects the interest in the job of cosmonauts to pick up if Energia ever gets around to implementing its ambitious plans to send manned missions to other planets. “Interplanetary flights will definitely rekindle the interest,” he said.
For now, however, students of Moscow’s best technical schools snub manned exploration of space.
“I dream to get a good job with a high salary and I don’t think there are too many students left who would be romantic enough to abandon material gains for cosmonautics,” David Tarkhanyan, a second year student at the Bauman University, told Space News in an Oct. 30 phone interview.