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.
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.''
Three hundred nights] Unlike NASA's space shuttle, which carries only enough water and fuel to remain aloft for about a week, Mir can house its visiting crews for much longer. Soviet medical specialists want to know how the human body reacts and adjusts to long periods of weightlessness. So cosmonauts have stayed aboard this space station for many months at a time. In fact, using Mir as their high-flying home, the cosmonaut team of Victor Titov and Musa Manarov managed to stay in space for an entire year.
Understandably, the physical and mental demands of such missions are huge. To keep muscles from wasting away in the weightless environment, the crew must run on a treadmill for hours every day. The sweat builds up and clings to their bodies in huge, uncomfortable blobs. At first, Mir was not equipped with a permanent shower, but now it has one. Even so, the station's water supply is limited, so the cosmonauts only get to take a quick rinse every two weeks or so. Instead, the cosmonauts wipe down with chemically treated towelettes after they work out.
During each flight, scientists on the ground keep a close watch of the cosmonauts' mental wellbeing. Do they seem irritable? Is their work fulfilling and successful? About every month, an automated ``space ferry'' brings the crew new supplies and reminders of Earth: mail from their families, fresh fruits and vegetables, music tapes, and newspapers. The fresh food is especially welcome, offering a variety from the usual drab meals of mashed concoctions in tubes. One crew was even rewarded with a watermelon.
Every week they get to have a private conversation with their wives and children. These days they always talk with ``wives'' - never ``husbands.'' Even though Valentina Tereshkova blazed the trail for women in space 27 years ago, only one other female cosmonaut has ever rocketed into orbit. Today there are no women in training - and no real plans to have them.
A ``long'' visit to Mir now lasts four to six months, and the two cosmonauts who have been aboard since early August should be coming back to Earth sometime in December. They will return with a precious cargo of crystals ``grown'' in weightlessness that are in high demand for sophisticated electronic components. Soviet officials expect that the sale of these crystals to Western companies will provide millions of dollars for the country's weakened economy.
OTHER aspects of the Soviet Union's space program are for sale, too. For several years a powerful Soviet rocket called Proton has been on the market to launch satellites. And thanks to a policy approved earlier this year by President Bush, American satellite manufacturers may be able to take advantage of the Soviet offer.
You can also buy yourself a seat on a Soviet space capsule for just $10 million - a ``bargain'' price that the governments of Great Britain, Japan, and Austria have already agreed to pay. In December, when a new crew flies up to Mir to relieve the current cosmonauts, a Japanese journalist will accompany them. He will spend a few days on board Mir, perhaps getting the story of his life, and then will return to Earth with the old crew.
Soviet officials now talk openly about more international cooperation in space. It is a far cry from the secrecy that existed early in the Space Age. Soviet President Gorbachev even asked former President Reagan in 1988 about sending a joint Soviet-American crew to Mars. But since relations between the two countries have only recently become cordial, it may be decades before that mission comes to pass. A more cautious first step, announced just last month, will be a cosmonaut riding aboard the space shuttle and an American astronaut making a visit to Mir.