Space smooths earthly tensions
Russian, US space officials say ties are close despite Kosovo. As with
| KOROLYOV, RUSSIA
On earth, Russia and the United States are at odds over NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia. But out in space, the quarrel doesn't seem to make much difference.
Desperate for foreign money to keep what's left of its space glory alive, Rus-sia is putting aside disagreements over Kosovo to cooperate with the West off the planet.
If ground troops were to be introduced, that might change the equation. But for now, joint projects for the cosmos are still flying.
To that end, top Russian space officials gathered here with European and American colleagues last week to unveil a new component of the 16-nation International Space Station (ISS). The talk was not about politics - but about money, money, and more money.
Members of Russia's space establishment were keen to stress that Moscow's opposition to the NATO assault was creating no frictions with its Western partners in the ISS.
Instead, they reiterated that Russia did not have the means to go it alone in space since funding dried up with the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse.
"We hope the Yugoslav problem will be resolved soon and we will focus on efforts for peace," the head of the Russian Space Agency, Yuri Koptev, told reporters. "There is no discussion of interrupting our close relationships."
NASA, which wants to keep Russia on board to benefit from its years of expertise in space station operations, insisted all was well when pressed about rumors of discord.
"I think our partnership is very strong. We see no effects [of the war on it]," said senior NASA representative Michael Baker.
Frustration with delays
The main disgruntlement appeared to be over delays in the $60 billion space station. The project is more than a year behind schedule owing to Russian rocket-builder Energiya's tardiness in completing the living-quarters module, which was finally rolled out April 26 with great fanfare.
Energiya has blamed the lag on problems getting government funding, hard to come by even before last year's financial meltdown. Because of the holdup, the first crew is only expected to go into orbit next year instead of next month as initially planned.
And on May 1, an Energiya spokesman said neither the company nor the Russian Space Agency could afford insurance for the service module.
Last week's unveiling was held at the headquarters of Russia's space research center, in this town on the outskirts of Moscow where the cold-war space race was planned.
The scene today is more cooperative but definitely shabby. The auditorium's worn, red curtains look as if they date back to the day Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space (April 12, 1961).
Reinforcing the impression of Rus-sia's sad technological decline, the sound cut out during a promotional film about its space industry.
The decline in fortune is humiliating for Russians, who proudly remember building the world's first satellite and being first to send an animal - the dog Laika - into space in 1957.
Today space officials wax nostalgic about their country's lost space grandeur and don't want to accept defeat in this arena. But the fact is that the cash-strapped government is ready to let go of one of the last industries in which it excels. Manned missions and rocket launches are Russia's strong points, but the country lags well behind the West in other areas of technology such as computers and electronics.
The situation is unlikely to improve this year with only 3 billion rubles (about $120 million) allocated for space research in the government budget.
To Russians' greatest shame, this is not enough to ensure survival of the last symbol of glories past: the Mir space station.
Since its launch 13 years ago, Mir has remained in operation longer than any other space station, and its crews have set space endurance records. Russian Valeriy Poliyakov holds the men's record of 437 days. And visiting US astronaut Shannon Lucid set the women's record of 188 days.
Initially slated to operate only five years, Mir is still going strong despite a series of accidents in 1997.
Farewell to Mir?
The station has been a valuable laboratory for experiments requiring zero gravity. Russian officials say Mir could technically stay in orbit for a few more years. But its future past August wholly depends on finding private investors.
"Today the state is in debt to us. Our plans depend on funding," Yuri Semyenov, head of the Energiya, told reporters April 27.
A knight in shining armor, or at least a business suit, may have appeared recently in the form of Welsh magnate Peter Llewellyn. Russian officials say Mr. Llewellyn has agreed to find $100 million to help keep the Mir running at least until the end of the year. His reward would be a week-long ride on Mir in August. Llewellyn, however, has denied that he is paying for the trip, saying it will be a fund-raising venture.
Officials are cautious about Llewellyn's prospects for saving the aging station. Details are hazy and other would-be saviors have failed to deliver in the past. Even if he did come up with the money, it's not clear what would happen when it ran out.
"No one knows. It all depends on investments," says Energiya spokesman Sergei Gromov.
NASA would be happy if Mir were let go. US space authorities are pushing Russia to drop the station and channel resources instead to the ISS. But for reasons of national pride, Russia is nervous about jettisoning its intrepid station, fearing that the joint space project would be dominated by the US.