When the Russian Soyuz rocket blasts off today, breaking the bonds of earth's gravity over the silent wasteland of the Kazakh steppe, its mission will mark the start of a new era in space exploration that depends upon community, not national pride.
The first crew of the international space station - American astronaut Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko - is scheduled to begin its four-month mission today, setting up permanent shop in orbit.
But while the United States and Russia are the primary partners, the station the space trio is set to dock with on Thursday is a 16-nation enterprise. Largely forsaken at this once super-secret Russian launch site is the cold war rivalry that spurred the space race for decades.
"The future of cosmonautics is international, and should be the task of humanity all over the world," says Lt. Gen. Valery Grin, head of Russia's space station commissions. And while he insists that cash-strapped Russia "has been, is, and will be a great space power," he says this station is "an investment in the future."
It was from this very launch pad, primitive and crumbling by US standards, that history was made. The first man-made satellite, Sputnik, was launched here in 1957. So was Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, in 1961.
Today the Baikonur facility, which Russia rents in Kazakhstan, 1,300 miles southeast of Moscow, is littered with the detritus of past ambitions. Rocket housings of the Soviet moon project are used as children's sandboxes; a Soviet version of the space shuttle gathers dust like any museum antique.
The US won the race to the moon in 1969, but a decade after the cold war, some Russians find it bittersweet, others just bitter, that they can only play second fiddle to the US in the space station. At a time when national space programs are hit with budget cuts, many believe that the point of the international space station is as diplomatic as it is scientific.
"It serves a bigger purpose," says Dennis Tito, a former engineer of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). "It's not just for science and exploration, but to foster cooperation with all countries." Mr. Tito hopes to be the first "space tourist" to visit Russia's aging Mir station, and is already in training for the trip, which carries a $20 million price tag. "Given that the US by itself landed men on the moon, it could build it's own space station - but the budget is a problem. This is the most sensible way," he says.
The Russians think so, too, since what they can't provide in cash for the $60 billion project - delays in building the living module, a Russian responsibility, set the program back two years - they make up for in unparalleled experience living in space.
After America won the moon race, NASA concentrated on its space shuttle program. The US Skylab station hosted three short-term crews in 1974 and '75. But the Soviets dreamed of getting to Mars, and launched Mir - now in orbit nearly 15 years - to study long-term effects on humans.
Cosmonaut Krikalev is a Mir veteran, with 484 days in space. The space station - a beloved symbol to many Russians - has been empty since June after a series of mishaps, including an onboard fire, during the 1990s. General Grin and other Russian officials say they will bring Mir down before it crashes. NASA officials hope its grounding will focus Russian space funds on the space station. But President Vladimir Putin has said he would like to see the station keep flying.
"This [international] station wouldn't be possible without the Mir experience," says Sergei Gorbunov, spokesman for the Russian space agency. Russia is providing oxygen and some other life-support systems on the space station, he notes, but there are many things it can't provide. "The time has come to do these things together. It's the right thing. We all live on one planet," Mr. Gorbunov adds. "No one country can support projects like this."
Despite all the warm talk, much of Baikonur is caught, as if in a time warp, among reminders of past Soviet glory. Those were days when the US did not even know the name Baikonur - instead calling this place Tyuratam, the town closest on the map to where US scientists triangulated the position of launch sites.
For years, the name of the father of Russia's space program, Sergei Korolev, was a closely guarded secret. He was called simply, "the general designer." Part of the mission of Gary Powers, the U2 spyplane pilot shot down in 1960, was to photograph the very launch pad where astronaut Shepherd will lift off today.
At times, it can all be too much for members of the old guard. "It is good to take part in the international space program, but we are guest visitors, and it would be good to have our own," says Vladimir Poluektov, a mechanical engineer who has worked here since 1983. Today he is caretaker of a huge test complex that was mothballed in 1993.
"Look at the first crew - who is the commander? An American," he says, resigned, even though a Russian will command the next mission. "We contributed so much effort, money, and knowledge to this project. I'm here, and our political leaders are far away."
Conquering the unknown has given way to commercial satellite launches that keep space programs alive. Four years ago, Russia accepted $5 million to inflate a large Pepsi can in space from Mir, as an advertising gimmick. When the Russian living module was launched in July, it's booster rocket sported a 30-foot Pizza Hut logo.
Despite the historic nature of today's scheduled blastoff, there are no national flags. The only emblem is of sponsor Dreamline, a San Jose, Calif., company.
Still, one needn't go far here to be reminded of triumphant moments. Images and statues of Sputnik are everywhere; a full-size Soyuz rocket - a model that has lofted 1,550 missions - stands like a trophy in front of a bare Soviet-style apartment block.
But in the cavernous building where the Buran "space shuttle" now collects dust - a recent attempt to wash dust off the CCCP (USSR) emblem on the wing only caused it to clot together, like bird droppings - there is a strong sense of unrealized potential.
"Of course we are proud of our own work.... There was an aura of romanticism with the production of this aircraft," says engineer Anatoly Pavlov. Today, he laments, Russia's rockets are "used as taxis."
"We can see our future shaping up, it's all a matter of orders and contracts," he says. "They bring the payload to us, we shoot it up into space ... end of story."
When asked if the Buran prototypes wouldn't be better off in a museum, Mr. Pavlov winces. "Show me the museum!" he counters. "You can't understand my hurt when you say that. They are like my children."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society