A Vaunted Space Program Now Stuck on the Launch Pad
Joint venture with US helps keep cosmonauts in orbit
STAR CITY, RUSSIA — A thick blanket of snow muffles the silent streets and buildings of the Yuri Gagarin cosmonaut training center, deep in a pine forest just outside of Moscow.
Once upon a time this miniature campus shone at the heart of the Soviet Union's most prestigious and successful endeavor - its space program. The handpicked heroes who graduated became international symbols of the Kremlin's claim that Moscow and its communist creed were the wave of the future.
Today, there are few signs of activity. Starved of funds by a government that has its eyes fixed on narrower horizons than the heavens, the center is barely ticking. Indeed, the entire Russian space program may be on its last legs, according to some local experts, simply for want of money.
Certainly, Russia's space scientists have suffered some embarrassing flops recently. Most publicly, a Mars space probe crashed into the Pacific in November after its booster rocket failed. It took with it to the bottom of the ocean Russia's hopes of being part of a major international exploration project, and the accident further tarnished the space program's image.
The Russian Space Agency is so short of money that more than once it has had to postpone the launch of rockets scheduled to resupply the aging Mir orbital space station, which houses rotating teams of astronauts and scientists.
Russia is still part of the "Alpha" project - an international scheme to build a successor space station to Mir due for completion early next century. Indeed "it is the Alpha project [mainly paid for by Washington] that is keeping our space industry going," says Maj. Gen. Vladimir Djannibekov, head of training at the Gagarin center.
Moscow is clearly a junior partner in Alpha, contributing only $3.5 billion of the total $30 billion cost, compared with Washington's $17.4 billion. But it has to content itself with this lowly status: A lack of funds obliged Russia to scrap its own plans to build Mir 2, a station that would have served Russian purposes first and foremost.
General Djannibekov, one of the best-known Soviet cosmonauts who went into space five times, has learned to live with these constraints. For a man who has spent most of his adult life dealing with extraterrestrial affairs, he is remarkably down-to-earth.
As he orbited the globe day after day on his last space flight in 1985, Djannibekov watched giant palls of smoke from hundreds of brush fires in Africa drift across the Atlantic and feed a cyclone in the Caribbean that went on to do enormous damage to the East Coast of the United States.
Ever since that experience, he has focused on ecological issues. Alongside the reduced cosmonaut-training program that the Gagarin center runs, Djannibekov now offers ecology diploma courses to anyone who is interested, putting special emphasis on interpreting photographs taken from space or from airplanes.
If Russia no longer has the money to stay at the cutting edge of space, Djannibekov is philosophical. "In space, we can do odd jobs," he says with a smile. "It's down here that we have to live."