300 Nights in a Sleeping Bag
Have you ever wondered what it is like to travel into outer space on a Soviet spacecraft? Or to spend a year in a space station orbiting Earth? The Home Forum asked J. Kelly Beatty to give some background on the USSR's space program. Mr. Beatty, the senior editor of Sky and Telescope magazine in Cambridge, Mass., was technical advisor for the exhibit, 'Soviet Space,' at the Boston Museum of Science earlier this year. WHEN the Space Age dawned more than 30 years ago, teams of rocket engineers in the United States and the Soviet Union wrestled to be ``first'' in the exploration of outer space.Skip to next paragraph
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Early on, the Soviets had the upper hand. They launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, on Oct. 4, 1957. Then came a parade of other achievements in quick order: a dog in orbit, a man, two men, a woman, a space walk. Robotic probes to the moon and planets soon followed.
No space feat is more enduring than that of Yuri Gargarin, who at 27 became the first human in space. He circled the earth just once, on a 108-minute flight in April 1961. But that historic flight immediately made him a national hero. Gargarin was - and still is - Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, and Sally Ride all rolled into one. For years thereafter, returning cosmonauts basked in attention heaped upon them by an adoring public. Statues of Gargarin and other cosmonauts soon appeared along Moscow's main streets.
YET despite all these accomplishments, the Soviet Union clothed its space activities in secrecy for decades. Brief announcements about a mission - if made at all - came only after it had succeeded. Even the name of the man who designed virtually all early Soviet rockets and space craft, Sergei Korolev, remained a secret until after his death.
But these are changing times for the Soviet Union, and its cloak of secrecy is not nearly so opaque as in years past. Reports of that country's political unrest, economic distress, and military activities appear in American newspapers daily.
The space program there is changing too. Everyday citizens now sometimes get to watch a rocket launch as it happens on television, which was never the case in years past. However, with so many other problems to deal with down on the ground, Soviet citizens are understandably less interested in space travel these days.
It isn't as exciting to be a cosmonaut as it used to be, either. They still live in their secluded training center named ``Starry Town,'' not far from Moscow. But the flights into space don't come as often now, and most of those in the cosmonaut corps must wait many years to be assigned to a flight.
The drop-off in missions has more to do with how space exploration has changed than with the economy or public opinion. Since 1986, the Soviet Union has maintained a small space station in orbit called Mir, the Russian word for both ``peace'' and ``world.'' The station has accommodations for two cosmonauts, though a trio of special purpose modules have been added since Mir's launch four years ago.
The three extra modules are attached to Mir using a cluster of docking ports at one of its end. Two more are under construction now, and when all five are in place the station will have the appearance of a high-tech erector set. Each module is devoted to a particular function, like astronomical observations or space manufacturing. Cosmonauts aboard Mir welcome the extra room and privacy these additions provide. As one early visitor, Yuri Romanenko, grumbled, ``You don't know what it means to spend over 300 nights in a sleeping bag.''