Rip Van Krikalyov

October 21, 1991

Ever get the feeling you're just going round in circles while the world spins away from you? Now hear the sad plight of Sergei Krikalyov.

Cosmonaut Krikalyov is the flight engineer aboard the Soviet space station Mir. He has spent the last five months in orbit, and when his relief flight pulled in from Earth the other day, it brought no relief for Mr. Krikalyov.

The Soviet space program, like much else in the Soviet Union, has fallen on lean times. The twice-yearly shuttle to Mir, the space station assembled in orbit in 1986, usually carries a two-man Soviet crew and a propaganda guest in the third seat. The first Mongolian in space, the first Vietnamese in space and others have spent a few days on Mir, then returned to earth with the space-weary Soviet crew going off duty. But it costs money to mount these missions, so lately paying guests have occupied the third seat. A Japanese journalist and a British woman chemist are among those who have shelled out $12 million for a trip to space.

The other day, when the autumn shuttle blasted off for Mir, it carried both a propaganda guest and a paying guest. The propaganda guest, upholding the honor of his homeland, was a Kazakh. Kazakhstan, a thinly populated steppe in Central Asia, vast enough to swallow up four Texases, is one of the Soviet republics that have declared national independence. More to the point, Kazakhstan is the home of the Soviet space program. And it has threatened to nationalize the spaceport at Baikonur, together with all the space hardware -- including space station Mir. Putting a Kazakh on the latest flight was a way of affirming Kazakhstan's shared participation in the space program.

But there was still the problem of financing the flight. So the first Austrian in space bought a ticket. That left room for only one working cosmonaut, which meant only one of the pair that has been on Mir since May could be brought back to earth. Mr. Krikalyov got bumped.

There he floats, 150 miles above his homeland. In his absence there has been a failed coup. The superpowers have sworn off nukes, almost. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are foreign countries. The Communist Party has been outlawed. The rubles in which Mr. Krikalyov is paid are hyperinflating. In Mr. Krikalyov's hometown, wherever it is, the statue of Lenin in the central square has been pulled down and the square renamed. And the next Mir shuttle isn't due till March. Rip Van Krikalyov's eyes are wide open.

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