This page no longer updated from 31 October 2001. Latest version can be found at www.astronautix.com

astronautix.com Russia's Space Program: Running On Empty - Part 1

Buran safing area
Buran safing area
Buran safing area with LC 1 launch pad in the distance.

Credit: © Mark Wade. 23,192 bytes. 540 x 201 pixels.



by James Oberg
Part One
Reprinted by permission
Originally appeared in SPECTRUM Magazine - December 1995

The Russian space industry is reorganizing itself and has big plans for the future -- but even with austerity measures, it needs a major influx of funds not to starve first

The would-be observer of Russia's space program today, the barrage of confusing claims from experts both inside and outside the country can easily be overwhelming. Apparently, bankruptcy and collapse are imminent: the two top Russian officials, one civilian and one military, have each stated that the nation's space activity is in crisis and might even be forced to a standstill. Yet the industry still produces hardware, the rockets still fly, their ground controllers still operate distant spacecraft, and the cosmonauts aboard Mir still maintain their watch on orbit. In fact, the Russian space infrastructure has been pronounced robust and the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site "superb" (in the words of U.S. Vice President Al Gore). How can these opposites be reconciled?

A sound appraisal of the current status and likely future of the Russian space industry is urgently needed as Moscow and Washington, D.C., switch from being adversaries to being allies. Military and commercial arrangements between the two nations-as well as between Russia and Europe-range from the sale of space reactors, rocket engines, and launch services to the supply of crucial modules for the International Space Station. With Russia irrevocably in the critical path for this multinational superproject, the long-term stability of the nation's space program has profound implications for the health of the U.S., if not the Western, space industry.

Assessing the prospects of the Russian space industry entails more than a catalog of people and machinery. The intentions of politicians-present and to come-could be pivotal. As Moscow's space policy since the 1950s shows, the influence of politics can be whimsical, petty, and short-sighted as well as pragmatic.

Even so, in true engineering analytical style, it is possible to "bound the problem." It is possible to map out what hardware and human resources within the country are devoted to space activities, and what level of care and feeding those activities require to be preserved or even expanded. As part of the necessary research, IEEE Spectrum visited most of Russia's key space facilities last March.

This combination of research and analysis has revealed that at current levels of support, Russia's present output of space activities is not sustainable. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the space program has been coasting on strategic reserves, winding down from earlier energy levels, cannibalizing the last redundant equipment-in short, "eating the seed corn." Nonetheless, Russian space officials express the hope that such measures can bridge the gap until the governmental and economic crises are over and funding becomes healthier.

Post-Soviet organizations

As revealed by sources unavailable before the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian space industry was never the monolith of centralized planning that many U.S. space officials of the 1950s and `60s had feared. Instead, it was a hodge-podge of competing-even antagonistic-power centers that made alliances, engaged in personal squabbles, and often surged off on what some considered wild-goose chases.

Today this industry is completely reorganizing itself to become more centralized, even as it is slowly starving to death. In absolute terms, its current financing is only a fraction of what it was under the Soviet regime. For example, the military space forces receive one-tenth the money and manpower they were allocated in 1989.

Throughout the glory days of the Space Age, Moscow had managed its space programs with an ad hoc lash-up of agencies, funding authorities, review boards, and political patrons. Long-term Soviet space doctrine was set more by whim, misperception, and backroom deals than by rational considerations. As revealed by Spectrum's interviews with Russian officials, alliances were as likely to be formed by friendship-or even marriage-between the heads of agencies as through formal charters or chains of command.

Front organizations, such as the Glavkosmos office for international sales, were created to deal with public or even international partners; but their vaunted authority was often hollow and their functions at times merely charades. Leadership was diffuse, bureaucracies inert, and the entire industry was prone to huge disruptions as projects and personalities gained or lost favor within the Kremlin.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the organizational situation has improved, despite the financial straits. The first step in the reformation was Moscow's creation of the Russian Space Agency (RKA, its initials for its name in Russian). Its head is Yuri Koptev, whose position roughly parallels that of the administrator of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The RKA has a small staff-about 300 people in all-and has centralized control of the civilian space budget, both manned and unmanned. Today, when the Russian government funds nonmilitary space projects, the RKA alone writes the checks.

The agency also deals on a cash-and-carry basis with its Defense Ministry sister office, the Military Space Forces (with the initials VKS for its Russian name). Its commander-in-chief is Colonel-General Vladimir Ivanov, who ranks roughly on a par with a three-star general in the United States Army. The VKS runs the nation's space-tracking networks and has its own spacecraft control center, Golytsino-2 in Krasnoznamensk, near Moscow. It also manages the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia's more northerly launch site, which had been under the administrative control of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces.

Alongside their independent oversights, the civilian RKA and the military VKS share several facilities. One is the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Russia's more southerly launch site, where the launch pads and facilities have been divided up. The RKA reimburses the VKS for the wages of more than half the military workers there, for their logistic support of civilian launches. Moreover, the RKA and the VKS jointly fund and manage the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center on an air force base northeast of Moscow, taking it over from the Russian Air Force.

The `real' space program

If the RKA and its director Koptev have one special management headache, it is its prime contractor, the Energiya Rocket and Space Complex (designated RKK-E in Russian), headed by Yuriy Semyonov. Two or three years ago, as the fledgling RKA struggled to learn the new bureaucratic ropes, Semyonov's

Energiya associates toured the world telling potential foreign partners (including the NASA and industry officials who recounted this to me) that all space deals would be made through them. "Ignore Koptev's people," Energiya officials assured their foreign contacts. "We are the real Russian space program."

Operationally speaking, they were not stretching the truth very far. Energiya is much more powerful than any Western aerospace corporation. As the descendant of an old bureau organized by the founder of the Soviet space program, Sergey Korolyov, Energiya essentially runs today's Russian manned space program. It orders boosters and spacecraft from subcontractors, arranges for launchings by the VKS, owns and operates the Mission Control Center in Kaliningrad, and for all practical purposes owns the Mir space station.

Civilian cosmonauts are recruited exclusively from the staff of Energiya. A decade ago, the organization also ran the short-lived Buran program for a reusable space shuttle and oversaw development of the powerful super booster also called Energiya. From the Energiya Complex's point of view, the rest of the Russian space program consists only of second-rate sideshows.

But Energiya went a bit too far when it privatized itself two years ago, distributing half the stock among its officials and assigning half to the central government. Aspiring to highly profitable deals with Western companies, NASA, and the European Space Agency, Semyonov's group was soon astonished to see Koptev's new RKA team outmaneuver them on the international front, leaving them with only a few secondary contracts. To meet the rest of the corporation's operating budget, the RKA started disbursing central government funding at exactly the Energiya stock ownership ratio: half was to come from Moscow, and half would somehow have to be raised privately by Energiya. With what amounts to only half funding, the corporation has survived, but that its status is subordinate to the RKA is no longer in doubt.

The civilian RKA also directly runs a series of smaller laboratories, institutes, and factories. Plus, it deals with smaller, specialized independent firms for items such as spacesuits, interplanetary probes, and data analysis. For specific projects, it cooperates as need be with independent scientific groups, such as the Institute for Medical and Biological Problems and the Moscow Academy of Sciences' Institute for Space Research (IKI in Russian). But the RKA does not fund these institutes, and their parent organizations hardly do, either, so many of these and other scientific groups have just about shriveled.

The visitor to the Russian space centers quickly realizes their apartness from post-Soviet Russian society. Years after the Soviet Union collapsed and communism officially died, freshly painted hammers and sickles still adorn space facilities that flaunt the names and profiles of Lenin and other Old Bolsheviks, such as Mikhail Kalinin.

One of the leaders of the 1991 anti-Gorbachev putsch that led to the USSR's collapse was the former head of the entire Soviet space industry, Oleg Baklanov. Those who are now in charge of Russian space organizations are mainly Baklanov's proteges, put there in the Brezhnev years, and most seem to feel nostalgia for that era. Consequently, long before the public lost its enthusiasm for Russian President Boris Yeltsin, space workers had split their political allegiances between old-style Communists and new-style radical nationalists. Someday these old-timers will be replaced, but for the time being, there is a state of fearful uncertainty in the industry over how it can be done. Most of the top space experts are survivors of the generation that worked on Sputnik and Vostok nearly 40 years ago. Because the same group went from project to project as the space programs developed over the decades, they are uniquely experienced and knowledgeable. But even though all are in their 60s and 70s, they rarely document their activities for the reference of future workers.

As a result, an institutional amnesia may be creeping in, as illustrated by a curious incident in Moscow's mission control center last April. The Mir cosmonauts displayed several pieces of hardware over their television downlink, described the items, and asked what they were for and whether to retain or discard them. After a determined research effort, ground controllers had to tell the cosmonauts that nobody on earth recognized the gear or knew its purpose. There were no written records and no surviving experts to consult.

Launch facilities

For the first two decades of the Space Age (from 1957 to the early 1980s), at the height of the Cold War era, Moscow officially had only one space center, and its name was a deception. The center was built near the railway station of Tyuratam, just east of the Aral Sea, near 46 degrees north-at about the same latitude as the Canadian city of Montreal. To disguise its location, the authorities referred to the center formally as Baikonur, the name of a tiny mining village 250 km to the northeast. Even the official applications for international spaceflight records carried false latitude-longitude values to hide the facts.

The USSR's second main rocket center was a converted intercontinental ballistic missile base at Plesetsk, well above Moscow and just south of the Arctic Circle. When the Plesetsk center began launching satellites with Cosmos 112 in 1966, it was wrapped in even deeper geographical deception, officially not even existing until 1983. The dazzling fireworks in the sky could not be concealed from nearby residents, but cover stories spread by security officials claimed they came from nowhere else but Mars: they were "genuine UFOs," and no, there was no top secret rocket base anywhere nearby. Surprisingly perhaps, evidence suggests that the unidentified flying objects were more widely believed in than the rocket base story.

At the height of the Space Age, the unacknowledged Plesetsk launch site accounted for more than half of all space launches in the whole world, with Baikonur a distant second-both leading the United States by far. Plesetsk concentrated on routine application launchings of medium-sized and small boosters and payloads, while complex manned and deep-space missions surged skywards from Baikonur.

In the last few years of retrenchment following the USSR's dissolution, the cosmodrome at Plesetsk has held its own despite staffing problems and other shortages, including recent power cutoffs due to unpaid bills. Located within the nation of Russia itself, its stability is guaranteed, so monetary investment there is secure. Its winters are hard, but Baikonur, located further south, suffers from harsher weather. Plesetsk's climate is moderated by the White Sea, while Baikonur, being far inland, is more exposed to temperature extremes and high winds. Moreover, unlike Baikonur, Plesetsk is close to Russian industrial support.

Plesetsk's advantages are offset by two key shortcomings. One is its far north location. At a latitude of more than 62 degrees north, its rockets will be unable to reach the planned 51-degree inclination of the International Space Station without a fuel-guzzling orbital plane change. The heavier the payload, the greater the problem. Even worse, the high latitude makes it extremely costly-virtually impractical-to handle payloads aimed at high-altitude earth orbits in the plane of the equator, such as the geosynchronous orbit (35 700 km above the earth) so useful for communications satellites.

A second disadvantage is that Plesetsk is not yet equipped for launching big boosters. At best it can launch the medium-sized Soyuz and Molniya boosters, which are derived from the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) originally based there and comparable to the U.S. Atlas and Titan-II boosters. Launching pads for the newer, bigger Zenit booster (about twice the size of Atlas) are under construction but may be years from completion. As for Russia's most powerful operational booster, the Proton is about the size of a Titan-IV or Saturn-1, and launching it out of Plesetsk any time soon is unlikely in view of the vast cost of building an appropriate pad.

Therefore, the only location for launching the Proton is Baikonur, now deep within the independent nation of Kazakhstan. The Russians have looked elsewhere -- they have investigated launch sites in Australia, New Guinea, Brazil, French Guiana, and even aboard a converted aircraft carrier and a drilling rig-but have deemed them all impractical for technical or financial reasons. For the foreseeable future, then, it's Baikonur or nowhere for the Proton.

Three threats to Baikonur

Baikonur itself could become nowhere, if the launch base succumbs to any of three threats. The first is its aging equipment, much of which is rapidly wearing out and breaking down. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, precious little funding is now available for refurbishment outside Russia's borders.

The second threat is its decline in personnel, whose living conditions in the workers' city of Leninsk are as bad as conditions in the physical plant. The lack of heat, functioning plumbing, reliable electricity, and safe drinking water continues to drive away current workers and discourage most potential replacements.

The last threat is political. Some day, perhaps soon, Kazakhstanis will face a transition from one-man rule to an uncertain new type of government, at a time when a revival of tensions among ethnic groups threatens to partition the immature state much as Yugoslavia was divided. Such a fate could leave the launch site in an unenviable no man's land.

The technological drawbacks have been the easiest to photograph and videotape, which I did on my March visit. Even operational pads, such as those for Soyuz and Zenit, are showing wear as support equipment breaks down and cannot be replaced. In older facilities, as fire prevention programs and equipment wither and as underemployed operators grow less skilled and more careless, fires have become more common within assembly halls and even at the launch pads. But an influx of cash from foreign commercial contracts is paying for the Proton complex to be overhauled and upgraded with new European equipment for communications and power, and even for a new visitors' center. The dwindling of personnel is due to the positively inhuman pressures that the workers and their families must endure in Leninsk. Many of these families are leaving Kazakhstan, hoping to be able to return to Russia. Privation, uncertainty, and physical dangers create conditions under which no Western government would expect air traffic controllers or nuclear power plant operators or space workers to operate safely. In my estimation, the environment comprises a classic recipe for inattention, error, or even sabotage.

According to Russian press sources, the civilian RKA recently promised to invest the equivalent of US $20 million per year in improvements in infrastructure. But those plans and that funding fall far short of what is needed. U.S. Congressman George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), who visited Baikonur in late 1993, estimated that an immediate infusion of $100 million was needed just to reverse the cosmodrome's collapse.

By late 1995, foreign visitors to Baikonur reported that small numbers of civilians had begun replacing the departing Russian military teams. Although the VKS is reducing its staffing levels, the RKA has started picking up some of the remaining military force's salaries, and hiring some others to work as RKA contract civilians. But civilian substitutes have been arriving far more slowly than military workers are being pulled out, accelerating the collapse of more of the cosmodrome's services.

Politically, Kazakhstan is enjoying stability under the firm hand of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who rules by decree, balancing the conflicting interests of the Russians in the north against the Kazakhs and other Central Asian minorities in the south. Yet ethnically, Kazakhstan has all the ingredients of a Central Asian Bosnia, and a newly formed nation rarely stays stable after the death of a founding strongman.

These tensions are evident in Leninsk itself, where 40 000 Russian residents coexist with 10 000 legal Kazakh inhabitants and about 7000-10 000 illegal Kazakh squatters. According to reports in The New York Times and Aviation Week & Space Technology, these people are ecological refugees from the Aral Sea area, which has been devastated by pesticide runoff from the cotton fields upstream. Neither the Russian military police, Russian state militias, nor Kazakh police have been able to dislodge more than a handful of the refugees from the city.

The current treaty allowing Russia to lease the Baikonur cosmodrome from Kazakhstan was based on personal negotiations between Nazarbayev and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who is fast emerging as a rival and possible successor of Yeltsin. The much advertised "annual rent" of $115 million turns out to be based on the estimated interest of a Kazakh debt to Russia of more than $1 billion, which Nazarbayev acknowledged as part of his deal with Yeltsin for his country's independence.

All the same, the Russians may not pay a single dollar for the lease, but instead credit the sum toward reducing the Kazakh debt. Since the Russians have refused to consider paying any reparations for the environmental and human damage at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test range and in the ecologically ruined Aral Basin (now both within Kazakhstan), many Kazakhs consider the deal a total sellout. They have campaigned to amend it, starting with a total repudiation of the Kazakh debt and a demand for real cash payments for Baikonur. The issue has been simmering under the surface, but possibly will erupt before long.

As a replacement for Baikonur, Russian military space experts have wanted to convert an SS-11 ICBM base at Svobodniy in southeastern Siberia into a space launch site. This base, not far from Khabarovsk on the Sea of Okhotsk, may ultimately launch modified ICBMs into orbit, but the funding for larger booster pads just cannot be found.

Meanwhile, as many military space launchings as possible are being switched from Baikonur to Plesetsk. The landing site for manned space vehicles and unmanned film canisters from Soyuz Karta, spy satellites, and other satellites was officially reported to be moving from Kazakhstan to the southern Urals region next year.

In short, no ideal solution is in sight for Russia's launch site dilemma. All the options -- repair Baikonur, upgrade Plesetsk, or found a new base at Svobodniy -- entail massive expenditures that seem beyond Russia's foreseeable space budgets.

The space boosters

With the exception of the brief interval (1987-88) when the super-booster Energiya helped loft the short-lived Buran reusable space shuttle, the Proton has been the biggest and most reliable Russian space booster in operation. Built at the Khrunichev Center rocket factory in Moscow, it now has more than 200 launches to its credit. In 1994 alone, 13 Proton boosters lifted off, tying the country's record high and suggesting that the Protons were immune to the general collapse of the country's space industry. In 1995, though, the rate fell to eight, and the Russian press has blamed financial difficulties for the delay of four or five other Proton missions scheduled for this year. Commercial deals for Proton launches have already been signed with European and U.S. communications satellite builders, among them Astra, Hughes, Inmarsat, Iridium, Loral, and PanAmSat.

The first joint Russian-Western satellite launch aboard a Proton rocket is set for early next year. More launchings are being negotiated, as is a relaxation of the strict launch quota decreed several years ago by the Bush administration, which wanted to protect expendable U.S. rockets from being undercut by cheaper Russian rockets.

International agenda

Last year, the Khrunichev Center teamed up with Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., Sunnyvale, Calif.; the new partnership, headquartered in San Diego, offers international customers a full range of services, all the way from small refurbished Titan II boosters through launch aboard the Proton rocket. Then Lockheed merged with Martin Marietta Corp., Bethesda, Md., and the Russian alliance has been inherited by the new Lockheed Martin aerospace super-conglomerate. The Proton rocket -- which can lift a payload of 20 tons -- is also key to the construction of the International Space Station, because the rocket is slated to put the crucial first Russian modules for the station into orbit. Reportedly, the somewhat smaller Zenit rocket -- which can lift a 15-ton payload -- will launch the later laboratory modules and heavy supply ships.

All this Western funding "has allowed us to implement some long-standing plans for improving the booster," Dennis Pivnyuk, a member of the newly formed public relations staff at the Khrunichev Center, told me during my March visit. The Khrunichev rocket factory radiated prosperity and vigor. Workers swarmed through the halls at shift changes. Everywhere (even in the back halls I peeked into when my hosts were not looking), there were neatly swept floors, clean windows, and functioning light fixtures -- details that speak volumes about levels of supply and maintenance.

The Khrunichev Center has begun the upgrade by outfitting the Proton's first stage with a closed-loop guidance system. The new system will in effect expand the rocket's payload capacity, Pivnyuk explained. The old open-loop guidance system did not utilize input from flight sensors to adjust the rocket's trajectory to hit the end point desired for the first stage flight, he said. Instead, large fuel reserves were needed to remedy variations, however large, in the trajectory, and any unused fuel was wasted once the Proton's first stage shut down. The fact that the new closed-loop guidance system has no need of burdensome fuel reserves frees the upgraded Proton rocket to carry an additional half ton of payload into low orbit -- and thereby to squeeze extra performance from the 30-year-old design.

As a bonus, the closed-loop guidance system allows the first stage to be burned to depletion. That means an end to a practice bitterly protested by local residents: the dumping on downrange pastures of highly toxic excess propellants.

The Proton's payload capacity is being further expanded by the design of a more powerful upper stage, which will be able to carry heavier payloads into geosynchronous orbit. This newly developed cryogenic upper stage will mark Russia's first operational use of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen beyond the two Energiya launches.

An extra `kick'

Alongside this Proton upper stage, a splinter group of senior engineers from the Lavochkin Design Bureau, in Moscow, is working on an independent alternate upper stage. The group, headed by Vladimir Ashushkin, formerly Lavochkin's chief designer for launch vehicles and communications, intends to take the design of one of Lavochkin's interplanetary probe's propulsion stages and sell it as a booster kick stage named Fregat (Russian for frigate), which can be used with all the Russian boosters, not just the Proton. "We're building mockups this year and aiming for a first launch by the end of 1996," Ashushkin announced to me at a special meeting at Glavkosmos.

He explained the four design principles behind the Fregat upper stage system. "First, since the need is urgent, it must be done soon," he said. Fortunately, since the basic propulsion system had been designed for the ill-fated Fobos probes to Mars in 1988-89, adapting it is turning out to be simple. Second, "the subsystems must be `off the shelf,' and these are." Third, the subsystems must have demonstrated high levels of reliability. And finally, the Fregat must be "a general-purpose vehicle of medium class" that provides "a good match with existing payload classes," he said.

In particular, Ashushkin wants to give medium-sized payloads launched from Plesetsk the oomph they need to reach the orbits now practical only from Baikonur. His design team has prepared studies of the use of the high-performance Fregat kick stage on top of Soyuz, Molniya, Zenit, and Proton boosters.

"Protons launch navigation satellites three at a time from Baikonur," Ashushkin explained. "But with the much cheaper Molniya-Fregat booster, we can launch them one at a time from Plesetsk and do without Baikonur." Other combinations may allow Plesetsk to be used for geosynchronous launches of payloads nearly as large as the current Proton capability out of Baikonur. The performance calculations are credible, and the veteran design team's dedication is unquestionable. But the route to the new Fregat's operational status must be paved with rubles, of course, and this factor is beyond the control of the workers. Even the chance of selling some Fregat vehicles to the Chinese, for lunar probes planned for launch in about 1999, has yet to produce a positive cash flow.

Still, the influx of Western funds has been a life-saver for a number of Russian rocket factories. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, suppliers for many critical subsystems were suddenly beyond the new Russian federation's borders. Once the union was split, these suppliers required cash-not bureaucratic directives-to deliver the parts. With funding fading out in Moscow, aerospace workers have been leaving the industry in droves.

At the same time, the advance of technology has both taken a toll and saved the day. Ten years ago, the awesome Russian annual launch rate was sustained at well over 90 orbital flights per year, peaking at 101 in 1992. It has since fallen to less than half that-far below a level that would keep all the factories in business. By early this year, Russian launch rates had fallen below levels in the early 1960s, when the U.S.-USSR space race had just begun.

Meanwhile, avionics improvements have been such that payload lifetimes have lengthened steadily, often more than keeping pace in "payload days" in space-even at the lower launch rates and with slashed funding. A typical communications or navigation satellite now has a design lifetime of three years, and observations by Western experts indicate that most Russian payloads have met that goal, though few exceeded it by much. According to public statements by Russian officials, two-thirds of Russian satellites now in orbit are operating days to years beyond their design lifetimes. End of the stockpile

That launchings have kept going at all is due to two factors: the handful of new rockets being rolled off the assembly lines by their skeleton staff, and the exploitation of the "strategic reserve" of boosters that were stockpiled long ago for military support for surge operations. The stockpile is supposed to be continuously replenished as boosters are used. In fact, half the rockets used by the Mir space station support missions in the past two years have been "borrowed" from this military stockpile-but without replenishment. Just two months ago (October), the stockpile of military boosters was finally exhausted, so that the launch of the next manned mission to the Mir space station had to be delayed two months while a new booster was built to order.

But it's an ill wind that blows no one any good. Today's phase of hand-crafted jury-rigged boosters has forced Russia's rocket builders to modify earlier hardware modifications, both to maintain basic capabilities and to modernize the old designs.

Besides the work on the Proton rocket at Khrunichev, other booster factories are implementing their own upgrades. The Soyuz/Molniya booster is manufactured to a 40-year-old design at the Progress Center in Samara and is being upgraded to a new version called Rus, because it is based on all-Russian components. And the intermediate Kosmos booster is undergoing a similar metamorphosis to become the Vzlet space booster, similar to the U.S. Delta launch vehicle.

As for the powerful Zenit and Tsiklon boosters, they are being manufactured in the Ukraine by the Pivdenne Center in Dnepropetrovsk, formerly called the Yuzhnoye Bureau (both words mean southern, but the Russian word has been replaced by the Ukrainian word). Since vital components such as rocket engines come from Russia, the building of these key boosters in a newly independent nation poses complexities both technical and diplomatic. In other industries, proper payments and delivery schedules across the Russian/Ukrainian border have been a challenge; but as both sides stand to gain by this deal, workable solutions will likely be found.

Russian rocket builders also hope to profit from the direct sale of rocket engines to Western aerospace firms. The Progress Center in Samara has almost a hundred powerful engines perfectly preserved from the 1960s' moon race. Sales of cryogenic upper-stage engines to India led to a Washington-Moscow crisis when the United States feared India could convert them into military missiles. In the end, the Russians agreed to withhold manufacturing technology, and the scaled-down deal went through.

Other factories in Moscow and Omsk are offering rocket designs to top U.S. firms such as Aerojet, Lockheed Martin, and Pratt & Whitney. Some of these deals may pan out, but most may fail, since many of the sponsoring Russian rocket companies are near bankruptcy and have already lost too many key personnel to resume reliable production.

Beyond the modernizations and the derivations based on the existing fleet of Russian boosters lies a vast medley of converted military missiles and aircraft. Just as in the United States, probably a dozen groups in Russia have developed proposals for small to medium-sized space launchers based on retired military missiles, or on boosters fired from aircraft, ships, ocean platforms, or bases in Australia, French Guyana, or Hawaii. Cooperative deals are being negotiated with companies in France, Germany, the United States, and elsewhere. Although these proposals are bedecked with enthusiastic promises and devoted workers, flight performance has been unimpressive. (One launched from Plesetsk earlier this year failed because the flight control system was inadequate.) Probably, again, most of these projects will fade away in a year or two.

Last, bucking money problems, the civilian space agency RKA has funded the development of a heavy-class space launcher called the Angara. Its design is innovative in that it consists of a first stage ringed by additional propellant tanks that drop off when empty, similar to the external tank that holds the fuel for the U.S. space shuttle's main engines.

The Angara booster is to enter service within a decade. Since it will be compatible with Zenit-class launch pads, it will fly from Plesetsk. So even if Proton launches from Baikonur are phased out, the production line at Khrunichev will not skip a beat, since that rocket factory will be building the Angara replacement booster. "If we had privatized and become a stock company," Pivnyuk boasted, "we all would become rich buying shares."

Manned program

Conditions at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Starry Town, northeast of Moscow, hit bottom last year. (Starry Town is the only accurate translation of the Russian name Zvezdniy Gorodok, which is a diminutive meaning "small city", the Russian government's official mistranslation, Star City, is grandiose because it implies a metropolis.) Visitors from abroad and even the Russians themselves told of unlit corridors, unmowed lawns, empty stores, and deserted streets. The Russian Air Force had been host of the facilities and the residential area for the cosmonauts and their families but had cut off funding in favor of more defense-related expenditures.

To keep the training center running at all, officials asked Western visitors for gifts such as blank videotapes. Press interviews, formerly free of charge, began costing hundreds of dollars an hour. Commercial agreements with Western travel agencies brought many U.S. and European tourists in for brief visits, and a few even stayed for a week-long "space training course"-a Russian space camp, as it were-paying more than US $1000 for the week. On a larger scale, as funding from the central government has shrunk, Russian manned-space program officials have learned to offer "guest cosmonaut" flights for a substantial fee to West European countries such as Austria, France, and Germany. The two long flights (30 and 135 days) by European Space Agency astronauts in 1994 and 1995 brought in about $85 million. And in 1993, NASA signed a multiyear $400 million contract for extended U.S. visits to the Mir space station and for large amounts of work on the International Space Station, including some hardware.

Non-U.S. visiting astronauts occupy the third seat in the three-man Soyuz spacecraft for the Mir space station, with the commander and flight engineer forming the core crew. So when a new crew heads for orbit, they can carry either extra luggage or take a third cosmonaut who then returns to earth with the relieved Mir crew in their Soyuz. Usually, the arrival of a new Mir crew occurs a week or two before the departure of the old crew, and that time is enough for the guest's activities.

In 1996, two more paying-guest cosmonaut missions are planned, with the French paying $14.7 million for a two-week expedition now scheduled for July and the German Space Agency paying a similar sum for a mission slated for December. The French and the European Space Agency may buy additional flights in 1997, now that U.S. money seems to guarantee that Mir will still be functioning.

Negotiations have also been under way with other possible customers. Chile, Finland, and Greece have declined, but discussions have been reported with a South Korean television conglomerate on sending one of its reporters up in mid-1997. The Russians trained six of their own journalists for a space visit a few years ago. But since none of the journalists' parent organizations can pay for the ticket, that mission is on indefinite hold.

In such a stripped-down mode, the Russian manned space program can probably survive on these cash flow conditions. The cosmonaut corps, on the other hand, recently endured massive layoffs of older men, many of them unflown but highly trained specialists in their 40s and 50s. Support for space medicine research was also slashed; some key groups, such as the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems, received no state funding at all.

Visitors to Starry Town run into all sorts of official and unofficial fund-raising activities at the cosmonaut training center. When shown the neutral buoyancy simulator-a large water tank where cosmonauts practice space walks-I was told no photographs were allowed. But then I was ushered into a viewing room where a small souvenir stand-complete with high-priced photographs and videotapes-had been set up for visitors. (During the showing of an orientation video, I excused myself to go to the bathroom and walked alone down the hall to the observation portholes, where I shot what I wanted with my own cameras.)

Getting enough power

The configuration of training equipment in the water tank and candid discussions with officials at the training center pointed me to one conclusion. Foremost in every cosmonaut's mind was the supply of electric power for the space station.

The Mir's power system is simple in theory but has proven thorny in practice. It is based on wing-like panels of solar cells. Each new module unfolds its own arrays as it docks with Mir. But the newcomers sometimes block the arrays already up there. The situation is so bad, in fact, that a few years ago Russian officials, in a lecture on the Mir power system sponsored by Energiya and given in Reston, Va., said that up to 40 percent of the theoretical power output is lost in mutual shadowing.

Matters are worsened by conditions in open space-notably solar protons that "dope" the silicon solar cells and thermal cycling that eventually breaks wires. Their effects gradually degrade each panel's power output at an average annual rate of 6-8 percent. The problem afflicts all solar arrays on all spacecraft, but degradation is much faster for a few of Mir's most brittle panels. The batteries inside the modules must also be replaced at intervals. From time to time, when power levels drop too low, automatic relays trigger an enforced blackout, sometimes at awkward moments.

Meanwhile, the Mir has been in orbit 10 years and continuously occupied for six by rotating teams of Russian and guest cosmonauts and one U.S. astronaut. In all likelihood, were they not on board for maintenance, servicing, and intervention when automatic systems fail, the station would have become useless some time ago. If Mir should ever have to be abandoned, Russian space officials have little hope that it will last for long.

Beginning early next year, U.S. astronauts will take up permanent residency on Mir as well, arriving by the U.S. space shuttle. Since hundreds of millions of dollars of NASA payments for new hardware for the International Space Station are at stake, the Russians can be expected to maintain Mir at all costs.

Sometime in 1997 or 1998, as assembly of the International Space Station begins in a different orbit, Mir will be equipped with an experimental solar dynamic power system and left to run on a beefed-up autopilot for at least a year, so that additional tests may be run on equipment for the final space station. At this time, unless the Russians go on finding new paying- guest cosmonauts, they probably will have succeeded in completing the longest manned phase of any space station's operational life. Safely deorbiting the abandoned Mir remains an unsolved operational problem.

Meanwhile, cosmonaut conditions back on earth also have been sweetened by Western funding. After bottoming out last year, living conditions at Starry Town seem to be improving. The stores are better stocked and the people were feeling upbeat after several years of depression.

Locals had even regained their sense of humor. Knowing that I would not have the time, they still suggested mischievously that I pass by the back corner of their town on the way out, because there I could inspect the row of new three-story brick "cottages" (their word) being built for the training center cosmonauts, many of whom are top center officials. At a cost of up to $1 million each, these mansions-which would not be out of place in some of the wealthiest U.S. suburbs-are obviously not being funded from the officials' meager salaries. But their existence is widely seen as a sign of impending general prosperity, for which the working troops are grateful to the European Space Agency and NASA.

Monitoring missions

Sitting in the ultra-modern main control room at the mission control center in Kaliningrad, on the northern edge of Moscow, I contemplated the contradictions it represented. At enormous expense, in the mid-1980s, this state-of-the-art facility had been built to monitor orbital flights for the Buran reusable space shuttle program. Western equipment, which looked to me like top-of-the-line items, lined the room.

The control room was used just once, for a three-hour unmanned Buran mission in late 1988. The $12 billion spent on the shuttle project, which included the new control facility as well as the development and construction of the reusable shuttle, was then written off as a needless detour when the Buran project was canceled.

When Western dignitaries visit the mission control center building (called the TsUP in its Russian-language acronym), they are sometimes shown the Buran room, instead of the older hall that runs the Mir space station. In the Mir control center in the original part of the building, round-the-clock shifts of operators in street clothes wander in or out as the flight plan requires, and desks are stacked with the books, documents, and charts common to spacecraft control centers the world over. If nothing urgent demands their attention, they may walk away from their stations or use their screens to call up "Tetris" (a Russian videogame that is also popular in the West).

Just before an official visit, however, some two dozen workers are issued white lab coats and directed to sit in front of display screens in the spotless Buran room, while flight telemetry is piped onto the screens to look real. Pictures of foreign visitors published in Russian newspapers usually show them down among the consoles of the new room. Moreover, the official control center booklet has data from the Soviet Vega probe to Halley's Comet up on the front display screens for visitors, even though the probe was not controlled from anywhere in the building.

Continued in Part Two.

Posted on this site by permission of author. © James Oberg.


Back to Index
Last update 12 March 2001.
Contact Mark Wade with any corrections or comments.
Conditions for use of drawings, pictures, or other materials from this site..
© Mark Wade, 2001 .