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Lost in Space? Russia’s turning point

The Russians pioneered outer space, but the fall of Mir comes as a powerful blow to that cosmic legacy. What now?
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The Russians pioneered outer space, fueling a technological race that sparked America’s own giant leaps. Now they’re losing Mir, their crown jewel in the sky, and getting a reputation as the has-beens of the space age. But the Russians could become key players in space again, if they can master the marketplace — and do it fast.

Four decades ago, the Soviets were winning the sprint to space: They launched the world’s first satellite in 1957, and followed up in 1961 with the first man in space.

Responding to the Cold War wake-up call, the Americans caught up — and eventually won the race to the moon. The Soviets turned their focus to learning how humans could live and work in space for months at a time. Once again, Moscow took an early lead, developing a string of space stations that led to Mir’s launch in 1986.

Then the Soviets stumbled. The economic crunch that led to the fall of communism nearly sounded the death knell for the country’s space program.

It was America, Russia’s old space rival, that kept the program on financial life support. This wasn’t due to pure altruism: To take the next step in space exploration, America found that it needed the Russians, just as Russia needed the Americans.

Motivated by mutual interest
Today, some of Russia’s space institutions look as worn-out as Mir: Many of the halls at Mission Control here in Korolyov are dim and dingy, in need of a fresh coat of paint. Lights are turned out to save on the electric bill. Walking down the hallway, this reporter had to watch out for loose floorboards.

The Hydrolab at Russia’s Star City cosmonaut training center is also in need of repair: In the men’s room, all but one of the toilets are crossed off-limits with plastic tape, and the tank on the one toilet that works is half-disassembled.

But the Soviet retro feel in these space centers belies the fact that some of the world’s greatest scientists, engineers and space travelers work here. And that’s what NASA needed for the International Space Station, a project designed to open the way back to the moon and on to Mars. When America and Russia joined forces in late 1993, Moscow had more than 20 years of experience with space stations. NASA had less than nine months.

“NASA wanted to use our practical experience, to get free access to the knowledge we had,” says Valery Ryumin, a veteran cosmonaut who is now the No. 2 executive for Russia’s Energia rocket company. “We wanted to use the Americans just for their financing, to save space research in this country.”

NASA and its contractors came through with hundreds of millions of dollars for Moscow — first to buy access to Mir, then to buy hardware for the new space station, which is currently under construction.

Today, Americans watch and learn at the Hydrolab as cosmonauts and divers rehearse spacewalks underwater to simulate weightless conditions, using an impressive space station mock-up.

Did NASA get its money’s worth? Critics say Russia’s involvement caused months of construction delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns. Defenders say the International Space Station couldn’t have been built without Russian know-how.

‘Survivors’ in space
But even the billion dollars paid out over the past seven years isn’t enough to save Russia’s space effort. The money from NASA is drying up, while Moscow has budgeted just $150 million a year for space spending, a third the cost of a single shuttle launch.

That has forced Russia’s space companies into a new space race for private investment. They’re not trying to beat the capitalist world — they’re trying to join it.

“Ironically, I think the Russians are showing us the path called commercialization,” says MirCorp President Jeffrey Manber, who tried unsuccessfully to turn Mir into a money-maker. “It’s the dream that many in America have of how our space program should be: Have companies doing space transportation, and have government oversight to an appropriate degree. So I think we can learn a lot from the Russians in how to commercialize what’s been a government program.”

In their quest for cash, the Russians are going where no space program has been before: Last year, California businessman Dennis Tito bought a round-trip ticket to the Mir space station at a price rumored to be between $12 million and $20 million. When Mir’s doom was decreed in December, Energia switched Tito’s reservation over to the International Space Station.

“That was a step we had to make,” Ryumin says. “Generally speaking, space tourism will be developing, because Dennis Tito is the first, but there are other rich people who would like to pay a lot of money just to get some adrenaline in their blood.”

The payoff for Americans
But as sexy as it sounds, space tourism is merely a sideshow for the main events: Energia is already playing a part in ventures to privatize Alpha’s Russian segment, to shoot payloads into orbit from a floating launch pad in the Pacific and to launch spacecraft from high-flying airplanes. Among Energia’s partners are Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the two main pillars of America’s space industry; and Russia’s Khrunichev Space Center.

Khrunichev has been at least as successful as Energia in the international space game. Prospects look even brighter this year, with Washington lifting an 8-year-old quota on Russian launches.

American firms have much to gain from such alliances, since Russia’s low-cost launches mean more potential profit for satellite operators and launch partners. Last May, Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 3 became the first American rocket powered by a Russian propulsion system. In an even greater irony, Kistler Aerospace’s reusable launch vehicle, developed by veterans of the Apollo moon program, will use modified engines that were originally built for the Russian moon program.

Lost in politics?
But there’s a huge wild card in the space shuffle: the political frictions engendered by recent spy scandals and the continuing debate over Washington’s missile defense plan. Just as President Reagan’s “Star Wars” served as the final controversy of the Cold War, the current “Son of Star Wars” could complicate the Russian-American partnership.

President Bush has signaled that the United States would shift more federal money to military space research, while Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged to respond by beefing up his country’s sagging space infrastructure.

Charles Vick, a space policy analyst for the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, worries about the return of a ’60-style space race, driven by paranoia rather than profit.

“The space program is important, as Putin has said, but this is also coming in reaction to the current (Bush) administration’s talk about the militarization of space,” Vick says. “If the U.S. is going to do what they’re threatening to do ... (the Russians) will go back to their science-fiction economy, their science-fiction society. And they will build a new space program to go back to that.”