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astronautix.com Russia's Space Program: Running On Empty - Part 2

Panoramic view LC1
Panoramic view LC1 - Panoramic view of interior of Launch Complex 1.

Credit: © Mark Wade. 26,698 bytes. 142 x 497 pixels.




by James Oberg
Part 2
Reprinted by permission
Originally appeared in SPECTRUM Magazine - December 1995

Conspicuous by absence

For the linkup of the U.S. astronaut and the Mir space station last March, my tour group was taken into the modern Buran control room. For us ordinary visitors, there was no pretense of this room being an operational facility, although people there noted that it would be brought on-line for the International Space Station. It was just a super-expensive display lounge. A world map with a spacecraft orbital path was projected onto the front wall of the room. The display showed the disposition of the vehicles in relation to each other and to the telemetry communications stations, and numeric tables showed other trajectory data. But for anyone with a long memory, the map had even more tales to tell.

The circles around ground-tracking sites showed where each spacecraft was expected to enter and then leave communications coverage. These circles spanned Russia from west to east, from a new site near St. Petersburg to the old site on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Two southern sites, in the Crimea and near Tbilisi, Georgia, had disappeared, because the Ukraine and Georgia had become independent countries and are no longer part of Russia's space activity.

But the map's most striking absentees were the tracking ships. They had once been strung across the Atlantic Ocean, filling in gaps in the land site coverage and in particular covering areas above which critical maneuvers would occur. All the big tracking ships built in the 1960s and `70s-the Komarov, the Korolyov, and the flagship, the Gagarin-today are rusting in Odessa; they are the property of a country that has no need of them (Ukraine), except to lease them to another country (Russia) that has no foreign currency to operate them.

In fact, according to several recent Moscow press reports that were confirmed by Moscow contacts, the Korolyov and the Gagarin are up for sale. I was told the ships were hosting business seminars in their main lounges for small rental fees, while negotiations were proceeding behind the scenes to sell them to the People's Republic of China for its expanding missile test program.

Four smaller Defense Ministry ships, which wound up docked in Leningrad when the USSR disintegrated, were turned over formally to the civilian space program not long ago. The RKA, however, has allocated no money even to maintain them and may sell them overseas for scrap to raise much-needed hard currency. Way out east, in Vladivostok, the Military Space Forces once had two tremendous modern tracking ships called the Marshall Nedelin and the Akedemik Krylov. But neither ship has been mentioned in public in five years and in March no source would say where they are now.

Without these ships, the Mir cosmonauts can communicate with the mission control center only during brief periods as they pass over the remaining in-country tracking sites. As the earth spins and moves Russia out from below the orbit's northern passes, the spacecraft can circle earth many times without passing within range of any site. During each 24-hour period, up to 9-10 hours are continuously out of contact, followed by 10-15 minutes of communication every hour and a half.

To fill in some of the communications gaps, the Russians have developed a relay satellite system like NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS). The system is called Altair and the geosynchronous satellite itself is named Luch (Russian for ray or beam). But as luck would have it, when the USSR's space program fragmented, the communications satellites wound up in a different ministry from the manned program. As a result, when the cosmonauts need the relay satellite, the control center must pay cash-in U.S. dollars-by the minute to lease it. No Russian or NASA official will say how much that leasing costs, but the huge expense can be inferred from how quickly the control center terminates the relay once the crucial orbital maneuvers are safely finished.

Western visitors to Mir also have been making their voices heard through use of ham radio rigs. During his 110 days on Mir last spring, U.S. guest cosmonaut Norman Thagard regularly talked to his associates in Houston over the ham radio. NASA is activating several other U.S. ground reception sites (at Edwards Air Force Base in California and at Wallops Island in Virginia) for future U.S. visitors to use.

Russia's military control center

While the civilian Kaliningrad control center is the one shown off to the world, it is not Russia's main space mission control center. By mid-'95, there were by official count approximately 160 active Russian space vehicles in orbit. Although Kaliningrad controlled one of those-the Mir space station-all the others were controlled out of Golytsino-2, Russia's Military Space Forces control center. Golytsino-2 is close to the town of Krasnoznamensk, about 45 km to the west of Moscow. Newspaper accounts of the center have appeared only of late in the Russian press, but all requests to visit it were shrugged off as impossible.

Yet, out of the publicity glare surrounding manned programs, Golytsino-2 has been quietly nursing along an impressive array of unmanned research and applications satellites.

As does the United States, the Russian military has its own reconnaissance "space spies" (designed to verify arms control treaties and keep an eye on the deployment of Western strategic weapons), along with networks of communications, missile warning, meteorology, and navigation payloads. Geodetic payloads steadily refine world maps, improving ICBM aiming. Calibration targets help ensure accuracy of tracking radars. And until recently, a special fleet of Russian spy satellites turned their sensors on Russia's own domestic targets to monitor military units for any lapses in countermeasures against U.S. satellites.

When appealing for government funding, military spokesmen often make the not-unreasonable claim that their investment in space-based resources is a "force multiplier" of the rest of the Russian military forces, as great as a factor of two. Yet in the past five years alone, their budget has been slashed to a tenth of former levels in actual purchasing power, and trained personnel has been cut drastically.

In spite of the desperate situation, the Golytsino controllers, trained in the Mozhaysk Military Engineering Space Academy in St. Petersburg, still behave with great professional competence in the face of spacecraft emergencies. Late in 1994, for example, the launch of Russia's first geosynchronous weather satellite, Elektro-1, nearly ended in disaster when the spacecraft's local vertical sensor failed (the sensor's cover may not have been removed before launch). With no documented way to orient the vehicle, controllers at Golytsino-2 and at the satellite's manufacturer developed techniques to use the coarse sun sensor to aim the solar panels, then estimated the craft's rotational position from the received signal power level. By the time the satellite had drifted into its planned position over the Indian Ocean, its pole star fine sensor had been successfully locked on and its cameras were aimed adequately. This impressive story of ingenuity and perseverance was uncovered by an independent Russian space magazine, Cosmonautics News, when the mainstream Russian press and the official space program spokesmen refused to break military secrecy to discuss it.

Budgetary stranglehold

Financially, things are only slightly better in the civilian applications satellite programs. Some programs, such as the Resurs film-return observation satellites, have been totally suspended. After a year-long hiatus, the last one in the inventory was launched in September 1995, and commercial funding for a commercial follow-on called Nika has so far been inadequate. (A mid-1995 commercial agreement with Western firms to market data might lead to flights next year.) Others, such as the Okean oceanographic monitors, make only rare flights.

An exception is the Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass), which late this year completed its operational constellation. It has 100-150-meter accuracy, about the same as the "degraded" version of the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) for nonmilitary users.

Of Russia's 24 operational geostationary spacecraft, three-fourths are beyond their design lifetime. The constellations are normally replenished at a rate of six to eight new spacecraft per year, as needed by actual breakdowns. But as replacement launch rates keep falling behind failure rates, the threat of further losses grows.

The net impact is that a smaller cadre of satellite controllers is being forced to nurse an aging collection of application payloads well beyond their design lifetimes. Even before they fail outright, they are cautiously operated in degraded modes to conserve their remaining capabilities.

Without any indication that the orbital constellations will be replenished at anywhere near the necessary rate in the months to come, Russian officials themselves forecast the collapse of many of the networks and the loss of services. At that point, they will either have to do without, or they will have to pay hard currency to lease services on Western satellites.

Mir itself is also feeling the budgetary stranglehold this year, especially when it has led to the loss of experienced personnel. When overworked and underprepared ground controllers tried to deploy a solar panel on the new Spektr module, they sent up the unlatching commands in the wrong order, and the panel jammed, requiring a risky space walk to deploy it. As the space-walking cosmonauts installed a restraining strap on a piece of equipment, they were out of radio contact for hours and had to guess at the proper orientation. They guessed wrong, and the strap later jammed a different solar panel.

A subsequent space walk to fix that problem was aborted when it turned out the water cooling loops inside the commander's spacesuit had been improperly configured, again thanks to inadequate ground monitoring. Everything was fixed; but such an increase in errors is yet another sign of thin human resources stretched to the limit in a troubled system near collapse. Not even the Russians know how much further the system can be stressed before something catastrophic happens.

Future concerns

In August, the Russians launched a rare and wonderful space mission, distinguished by its unusual purpose: pure scientific research. An advanced solar and ionospheric physics probe in the long-standing civilian Prognoz (or Forecast) series was put into a 63-degree-inclination orbit as part of the international Interbol program for monitoring solar radiation. The space probe had to be launched atop a rocket "borrowed" from the dwindling military stockpile. In addition, for the first time in the Prognoz program, the launch was not from Baikonur in Kazakhstan but from Plesetsk in Russia-a possible harbinger of things to come.

Although the term "space exploration" is still widely used to describe a nation's space activities, in Russia's case it has been applied sparingly as scientific projects have withered and died in the budget famines of recent years. The last Soviet interplanetary mission, in 1988-89, involved two Mars orbiters that were supposed also to land on Phobos, the Martian moonlet. But the project was so mismanaged that both probes failed. The first was lost en route because of faulty commands sent; the second was lost after its arrival in orbit around Mars (no reason given), although it did return a few photographs of Phobos and Mars.

Plans for a follow-on Mars-94 mission had to be dropped, despite international agreements, when the spacecraft factory, the Lavochkin Bureau in Moscow, refused to build the vehicles on credit. The mission has been renamed Mars-96 to reflect the optimistic new launch time of Oct. 10, 1996, and some money has been forthcoming from Western partners. All the same, Russian officials warned recently that financial support was inadequate to meet that date.

The big ticket items, such as the Mir space station and scientific space probes, are generally considered by Russian officials to be the dues that Moscow must pay to be still considered a world superpower. Such activities advertise the country's power and technological virtuosity at a time when all other indicators seem to show it slipping back into the Third World.

With little prospect of Moscow's financing any independent follow-on to Mir in this century, the civilian RKA was faced with the option of diverting the half-built hardware into modules for the International Space Station. Meanwhile, the United States let a $200 million contract with the Khrunichev Center to build the keystone specialized foundation module (designated FGB)-the central space station element that had been estimated to cost about $1.2 billion were it to be built in the United States.

NASA administrator Daniel Goldin has told the U.S. Congress that he expects the final cash transfer to Moscow to be about $1 billion for the entire joint effort. (Anything the United States buys from Russia for the space station is estimated to cost roughly 15 percent of a U.S.-built equivalent.) At the same time, however, the United States will spend about $1 billion a year more on pushing the shuttle to the higher inclination needed for the Russians to have access to the space station. A third of each half-billion-dollar shuttle flight's payload capability is sacrificed to the fuel required for the Russia-compatible orbit (a loss that NASA's bookkeeping does not acknowledge as a cost of the Russian hardware.)

The Russians have heard and believe this billion-dollar figure. They are now developing ways to bill NASA for an extra $400 million for activities not yet specified, in addition to the $200 million FGB module and the original 1993 agreement of $400 million for visits to Mir and some space station hardware. Not long ago, they indicated that they intend to bill NASA for every Russian service across the hardware interface, ranging from crew time to fresh air-items that NASA had expected to be gratis swaps. The Russians, in short, are pushing for an annual payment of some $100 million for the life of the space station just to keep boosting it into a higher orbit against air drag.

Few tangible results

One disagreeable fact hobbling pro-space Russian officials seeking Moscow money is that, aside from fading propaganda glories, their country has nothing much to show for decades of manned space flight. NASA, on the contrary, can point to a few hundred kilograms of moon rocks that revolutionized planetary science, a technology utilization program, and the general stimulation of U.S. industrial capability by the commercial application of techniques learned during work on NASA contracts.

Russia's space industry was always so compartmentalized behind walls of military secrecy that little if anything leaked into the commercial sector. Often developments such as an automated landing system for Buran had to be independently and expensively reinvented by other avionics groups cut off from using technologies already operational in secret.

Under such conditions, being an international partner in the NASA-led space station is a "can't lose" prospect, despite some powerful domestic opposition: hard-line old-time elements in the Russian press, who claim that the country would be "bartering away its intellectual treasures." Close observation of NASA's technology transfer programs may open new doors for the invigoration of the Russian industrial base. If built, the International Space Station (the name of Alpha was dropped from the designation earlier this year) will provide Russia with facilities for space access and exploitation far superior to a simple improved Mir.

As for the construction of the space station, undoubtedly it could proceed essentially as NASA officials have been promising. The Russian modules would be delivered on time (unlike the Spektr and Priroda modules for Mir in 1995 and 1996) and function properly. Shuttle flights would occur within the planned intervals. And the Russians would agree to accept access to U.S. space equipment in exchange for doubling their own launch rate at their own expense.

There is also, on the other hand, the possibility that a crisis could arise a year or two after the space station assembly begins. Even assuming political stability and diplomatic continuity in both countries, the economic rationales that now ensure Russian support of cooperation may within four years have reversed direction and argue against it.

One reason is that, in order to support the international space station, the nation will be faced with funding 10 to 12 or even more launchings per year on its own-possibly as soon as 1998-99. A few will be manned visits or missions to install add-on science modules. Most, however, will be supply flights, mainly of rocket fuel to keep boosting the station into a higher oribit. Otherwise, the inexorable drag from molecules in the tenuous upper atmosphere would eventually pull it down into the atmosphere toward a fiery death.

NASA expects the Russians to absorb this cost in exchange for episodic access to the research tools of the entire station. The Russians, though, have begun to make it clear that they expect U.S. taxpayers to send them hundreds of millions of additional dollars in supplemental payments. That money has not been budgeted in NASA's fiscal plans, and it is not in the total cost the agency promised to the White House.

Meanwhile, the Russian segment of the international space station will be able to operate independently as a stand-alone orbital outpost-Mir-2, if you will. Keeping only the Russian segment in orbit would require fewer than half as many Russian launches per year as the entire space station will, and Moscow space officials may deem it entirely adequate for Russia's space research needs.

The resolution of this cosmic vulnerability will be a diplomatic challenge. Failure to have the required supply launches to keep the station aloft is a risk that must be protected against-without total reliance on Russia. And failure to keep the international space station in one piece could be catastrophic for the West's space research.

If Russian cosmonauts, on orders from Moscow, close their hatches and unlatch their modules, they will drift away from their former partners aboard a fully functioning space station. The conglomeration of U.S., European, and Japanese modules left behind would have no propulsion, inadequate life support hardware, and possibly no guidance systems. The billion-dollar "rump station" could fall Skylab-like from orbit within a matter of months, the most expensive piece of space junk in history.

These are just the physical possibilities; there are also political realities. Russia's future in space depends ultimately on Russia's interests on earth. In a formal government decree signed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in August, the Russian space agencies were assigned eight specific areas on which they were to "concentrate their main efforts on the resolution of the most important priority tasks." The eight areas were environmental monitoring, geodetic missions (global time/location determination), television communications, natural resources surveys, space reconnaissance (monitoring international arms reductions treaties), materials processing in space, fundamental space science, and "the implementation of international agreements" for the International Space Station and interplanetary probes. The actual program is to be adjusted year by year, "taking account of the funds allocated annually"-in other words, it should do as much possible with the money that can be found.

Thus, despite current crises, so far it seems clear that the nation intends to spend what is necessary-in money, material, and even the human suffering of overburdened and underpaid space workers-to sustain a space program befitting a world power. For the moment, Russia's needs justify a space program following a parallel, integrated course with Western programs. As a result, space workers from both countries have become colleagues and even friends.

It is wise, however, for both sides to recall what the British Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Lord Palmerston said about British foreign policy in the 19th century: on the world stage no country has permanent friends, only permanent interests.


Spectrum visits...Baikonur

Classic Hollywood Westerns often used wind-blown tumbleweeds to depict scenes of isolation and decay, to set the psychological tone for lonely ranches and abandoned ghost towns. So I found it strikingly appropriate -- since the tumbleweed plant is a native of Central Asia, imported to the U.S. West only a century ago -- to stand by a giant abandoned rocket launch pad in Kazakhstan and watch the tumbleweeds dance in the freezing wind.

There was plenty of decay and abandonment to see. Built 40 years ago as a test range for USSR military missiles and later converted to launching space probes, Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome (deceptively named for a mining village hundreds of kilometers away) has always been hard on its workers. Located in a semi-desert east of the Aral Sea, the area was uninhabited for excellent reasons: it has little water, seasonal extremes of temperature from -45 oC to +55 oC, fierce winds, and barren landscapes. Although the worker's city of Leninsk is located just off the main rail line from all points in Russia to Tashkent, layers of military secrecy and bureaucratic callousness have kept the population feeling isolated and alone.

The collapse of the USSR in 1991 left the cosmodrome deep inside Kazakhstan, a newly independent nation, and Moscow funding for the space center quickly dried up. Many civilian workers, unpaid for months, abandoned their posts. Military draftees sent to do the maintenance work rioted and looted, and even the Russian military space agency VKS has been withdrawing its space workers because it cannot pay them.

By the early 1990s, there was often no heat or running water in workers' homes, no social services from schools to medical care, and only the drabbest items of food in the stores. Security collapsed and Kazakh squatters moved in while looters lurked in the city's outskirts. Public health declined rapidly and diseases spread, especially among the children. The lack of industrial maintenance and trained operators led to a series of deadly disasters, including fires, explosions, and toxic leaks.

Economic uncertainty led to political instability, and in 1994 the popularly elected mayor was replaced by decree from above in an essentially top-down coup by a military officer. His leadership style features public inspiration through nostalgic army songs coupled with public imposition of harsh punishments (including long prison terms) on protesters who can be identified. To many Russian and foreign observers, the cosmodrome's demise has seemed only a matter of time.

During my visit there in March, I met with local journalists and received a copy of the workers' petition sent to the government last year. "The condition of the people is disastrous," the document stated (in my translation). "Systems of power, heat, and water supplies, sewers, and telephone communications are worn out. There are neither means nor materials for maintaining them in proper condition. It's cold in the apartments, drinking water is intermittent, and very often electrical power is off for long periods. The commercial trading network has collapsed. For the inhabitants of the city, life has become a matter of simple self-preservation."

Moscow and Washington space officials and their designated consulting firms ignore or play down such catastrophic reports (they have apparently never seen the petition). They attribute the reports to budgetary gimmicks and to exaggerated tales based on outlying cosmodrome facilities that were shut down when the Buran shuttle program was terminated.

Unlike the members of the official press corps and the NASA officials who were on hand to watch the launch of Soyuz TM-21 last March, I was allowed to walk around the Soyuz launch area unsupervised. Later, when the official foreign delegations were confined to their hotel by a cordon of security patrols, I was at large in the city of Leninsk. Unlike the official visitors, I talked directly to the workers there without interpreters or guides. Inside the Soyuz assembly building, the smell of smoke from last year's fire had long since dissipated, and the physical conditions were neat and clean. In one corner of a room the size of a football field, a skeleton staff checked out the spacecraft next in line for launch to the Mir space station.

In 1990, during my last visit there, when the Soviet space program was still vigorous, three separate spacecraft were in various checkout phases and two more were in temporary storage.

Judging by the amount of reference documentation lying open on the worktables, I estimated the work level had been reduced by fully 80 to 90 percent in the past five years. Officials confirmed to me that "as an economy move" they no longer prepare backup vehicles for flight. A local worker confirmed that it takes longer to prepare each vehicle and that the number of mistakes has been increasing as good workers leave.

Later, after the buses had taken the official foreign delegations back to their guarded hotel 30 km away, I wandered the neighborhood outside this key facility. The abandoned buildings, broken fences (well-worn paths showed the best holes to get through), and thickly strewn junk piles (including shrouds and tanks from the Russians' N-1 moon rocket of the 1960s) reminded me of the worst extremes of U.S. urban decay.

The ruins were not in long-discontinued secondary programs, as the officials bravely insisted; they were in the heart of the cosmodrome village, where my tour group had been given hotel rooms.

Instead of being assigned rooms at the VIP hotels in Leninsk like the official delegations, our commercial group was bunked in the cosmodrome village, on the main road next to the assembly buildings. The museum was on one side of the road and the preserved house once used by program founder Sergey Korolev on the other. For three days I was the first person out the door at dawn, and the last back inside under frozen starry skies. The hotel staff, amused at my enthusiasm, merely suggested I keep my cameras out of view when not using them, but otherwise there were no limits, and I walked for miles in as many directions as possible.

The hotel staff had only one warning. We had already been cautioned not to drink the water and had brought our own bottled supplies. But the staff told us not even to touch the water-either from the taps or from the buckets set next to the toilets-neither to wash, nor wet our hair, nor anything. Local people did, but "they were used to it."

The soldiers on duty talked freely about their hardships, but their most eloquent testimony was quite unintentional. When asked what small gifts they would appreciate most, they requested not luxury goods such as cigarettes but far more basic supplies: tinned foods, if any, or pencils (they dared not even hope for pens).

In the city, the conditions are exactly as the workers' petition had described. Above-ground pipes zig-zag from one building to the next (the ground is so alkaline that a leak from a buried water line would ferociously corrode the pipe). Abandoned apartments, in several groups and sometimes in entire blocks, stare windowless at the dusty sun. Gritty brown powder wafts across the streets and barren ground between the apartment buildings, whirling around groups of seated grandmothers. The dust, blown from the pesticide-laden salt flats of the drying Aral Sea a few hundred kilometers upwind, is gradually poisoning the city's inhabitants, the weakest first. In bitter unanimity, they believe that nobody is going to do anything about it. Somehow the hard-core space workers struggle on, enduring, improvising, cannibalizing, and making-do. Even the youngest workers I talked to admitted to having been here for 12 to 15 years (nobody knew anyone who had come here permanently in the last five years). Members of this fanatic cadre, on average well over 50, have been through so much that no future challenge frightens them. (Their motto: "The difficulties that lie ahead are not as great as those we have already overcome.")

When I explicitly asked what it would take to get young people and their families to live and work at Baikonur, cosmodrome officials expressed their faith that ways will be found, someday, somehow. But they had no specific plans.

I explored these issues face-to-face with cosmodrome commander General Aleksandr Shumilin, in the Leninsk town hall, the only new building to have been completed in recent years. Shumilin is a keen-minded man of about 60 who was called from retirement and promoted over several senior officers to take command of the struggling spaceport two years ago. He has both written and said he has no patience with the foreign "dilettantes" who paint rosy pictures of his situation and accuse him and his staff of falsifying the seriousness of the conditions under which he operates.

His advice to me was a quotation from Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, a cynical cult classic book of the 1920s: "Write only what you see," he advised, "and do not write what you do not see."-J.O.


Space secrecy

The most salient feature of the old Soviet space program was itself invisible. It was the secrecy that Moscow wrapped around all its activities-a secrecy designed to mislead, either to allow protection of real technology or to trick foreigners into overestimating the level of Soviet space technology.

Gorbachev's glasnost spread into outer space in the late 1980s, and as communism collapsed, so did the system of deceptions upon which it relied. Old memoirs and photographs flooded the post-Soviet news media, and historical figures stepped forth in battalions to "set the record straight" and-all to often-"to get even" with their now-discredited enemies. Tales of space disasters and debacles flooded the Russian media. Western auction houses offered actual Soviet space vehicles, top secret Soviet space documents, and precious Soviet space memorabilia for cash sales. Commercial tours and news media junkets visited facilities formerly off-limits even to loyal Communists.

For a while, it seemed that information accessibility about the Russian space program had become "normal" by Western standards. True, profit-oriented press offices did ask for cash for pictures and interviews that once were free of charge. But the old Soviet-style pattern of using "news" as a weapon in an ideological struggle was still much in evidence.

Now, in the last year or two, a new wave of Russian space secrecy has been in evidence. For a different array of reasons, including commercial advantage, some of the same old abuses have resurfaced. Distortions, omissions, cover-ups, and exaggerations are again widespread, and the saddest aspect is that often the Russians have new partners in crime, their U.S. space allies. Several incidents illustrate some clandestine efforts.

The issue here is a lack of openness, not the incidence of accidents that are common in most high-tech enterprises (for example, the widely publicized death of several Kennedy Space Center workers in a nitrogen environment 16 years ago). In my estimation, the resumption of this kind of secrecy, and the level of tolerance it has received from Russia's new "international partners," suggests a disturbing trend that threatens the trust required for such a complex global project. -J.O.


A barometer of Russian space activities

The most reliable barometer of the health of the Russian space program may be the Kosmos Pavilion exhibit hall in Moscow. For a quarter of a century, its condition and the mood of the crowds milling past its exhibits have accurately reflected the Russian treatment of space activities.

When I first visited the Kosmos Pavilion as a graduate student in 1968, it was one of several dozen buildings in a major theme park boasting of the successes of socialism. The space hardware was shiny, the paintings of heroes were brightly lit, and the faces of the many visitors glowed with smiles. Spectacular space activity symbolized future prosperity in the eyes of the viewers.

Twenty years passed before my next trip there. This time it was evident that the neglect and stagnation of the Brezhnev era had been overwhelming. The hall's rotunda area had been cleared, because the roof leaked and parts of the ceiling had fallen on visitors. The windows were dirty and the lights were dim. Cynicism and apathy seemed to me to be the dominant public moods, except for those who were outright hostile to expensive space projects that had never shown any practical benefit. The thin crowds thronged into a side hall to see a cheerful temporary show on UFOs.

By this past March, during my visit for IEEE Spectrum, the main exhibits in the Kosmos Pavilion were not about space activities at all. The entire park, once called the Exhibit of Economic Achievements, had become the All-Russian Exhibit Center, which now concentrates on commercial products. The Kosmos Pavilion was full of automobiles and sailboats on display for potential buyers, and the space hardware had been shoved over to the side of the hall or into the smaller, out-of-the-way side halls.

Handfuls of shuffling loyalists were peering at the spacecraft, their expressions unmistakably wistful and nostalgic. The looks on their faces reminded me of nothing so much as the way modern Greeks and Italians view archeological exhibits on the vanished glories of Athens and Rome. -J.O.


About the author

Jim Oberg is a veteran engineer in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's manned space program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He has followed the Russian space program since before the launch of Sputnik in his youth. His 1981 book, Red Star in Orbit, was billed as the first inside look at the Russian program. Twice Oberg has won the Robert Goddard Space History prize for his analyses of secret Russian projects, all confirmed two decades later after the opening of sources followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years he has made several expeditions to the heart of Russia's space facilities: as an advisor to CBS News for "Sixty Minutes," as a host for the Public Broadcasting System's "Nova" miniseries on "The Russian Right Stuff," as a special consultant to Sotheby's auctions of Russian space memorabilia, and as a reporter for IEEE Spectrum in March. He is a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society, and the first foreign member of Russia's new Academy of Cosmonautics.

The assessments Oberg makes in this article are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization.


To probe further

Mir Hardware Heritage, by David S.F. Portree, (NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, NASA RP 1357, March 1995) is an accurate technical catalogue of the history of Russian-manned space hardware.

An overview of the political and diplomatic context of the International Space Station and similar projects is given in U.S.-Russian Cooperation in Space (Office of Technology Assessment, OTA-ISS-618, Washington, D.C., April 1985, ISBN 0-16-048019-1).

From the First Satellite to Energiya-Buran and Mir, by Vyacheslav M. Filin et al. (Energiya Rocket and Space Corp., Kaliningrad, Moscow, Russia, 1994), is a hard-to-find reference with space history and many never-before-seen views of hardware.

The latest in a series of assessments of the Russian space effort is Europe and Asia in Space, 1991-1992, by Nicholas L. Johnson and David M. Rodvold (Kaman Sciences Corp., Colorado Springs, Colo., 1993).

A realistic assessment of the prospects and pitfalls for a joint U.S.-Russian program is "The Space Station Program: Progress and Challenges," by Marcia S. Smith, Science Policy Research Division, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, from Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, U.S. Senate, May 23, 1995.

Red Star in Orbit, by James Oberg (Random House, New York, 1981), is a popular reconstruction of the activities behind Soviet space secrecy, mostly confirmed by later post-USSR revelations.

A Russian's assessment of his country's situation is given in "Current Status of Russian Space Program and its Implications to Global Cooperation and Competition," by Maxim V. Tarasenko. It was paper No. IAA-95-IAA.3.3.01, presented Oct. 2-6, 1995, at the 46th International Astronautical Congress, in Oslo, Norway; contact the International Astronautical Federation, 3-5, rue Marlo-Nikis, 75015, Paris, France.

A thorough account of the short-lived Buran program is given by historian of experimental aviation Henry Matthews in The Secret Story of the Soviet Space Shuttle, (X-Planes Books, Beirut, Lebanon, 1994). It can be ordered from Walter Roberts, 131 Alameda Ave., Fircrest, WA 98466.

A comprehensive history of the Russian manned space program from the beginning up to early Mir is given in the 392-page Almanac of Soviet Manned Space Flight, by Dennis Newkirk (Gulf Publishing Co., Houston, Texas, 1990).

Spectrum editor: Trudy E. Bell

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


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