Russian space program may take off again

Columbia disaster shifts fate of station and crew

The Loss Of Columbia

February 05, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The technicians and cosmonauts working in Russia's once-glorious space program were laboring in obscurity a week ago, ignored by the world they had once astonished.

Today, the fate of the $100 billion International Space Station, and the three crew members aboard, depends on those same scientists and engineers, working to figure out how to keep the station in orbit and the crew alive during the months to come.

"Every section of our organization, every department knows what should be done in an emergency such as this," said Aleksandr Aleksandrov, chief of flight testing services for Energia, the government-controlled company that runs Russia's manned space programs.

After the loss Saturday of the space shuttle Columbia, NASA grounded all shuttle flights indefinitely. That means Russia's cramped but reliable Soyuz capsules are the only available means for ferrying crews to and from the station. Russia's Progress unmanned supply ships, with cargo capacities of about 5 tons, are the only available spacecraft for delivering supplies.

The bottle-shaped Progress craft are also the only vehicles capable of periodically nudging the station back up into its designated orbit, to prevent it from catastrophically re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

Russia's cash-starved space program could suddenly receive hundreds of millions of dollars. It is possible that it could also resurrect its own space shuttle, the Buran, a spacecraft largely copied from NASA's unclassified shuttle blueprints of the 1970s and 1980s.

At the very least, Russian space scientists and engineers will again be in the spotlight.

What is remarkable, though, isn't the potential revival of Russia's space industry but its near-demise. The Soviet Union sent the first satellite into orbit. It lofted the first animal, man and woman into space. It was the first to crash an unmanned spacecraft on the moon. A Soviet cosmonaut was the first to walk in space.

But when the Soviet Union crashed, it took the space program with it.

"Everyone was thinking that it all belonged to the old Soviet Russia, and the new Russia didn't need it," Leonid Gorshkov, deputy director of space programs for Energia, said yesterday. "The 1990s were a hard time."

Russia's space dominance began with the launch of Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957. Before Washington even knew there was a space race, Russia was ahead. That launch was quickly followed by others, culminating in the first manned space flight, by former fighter pilot Col. Yuri Gagarin in April 1961.

The `Chief Designer'

These triumphs were masterminded by Soviet space pioneer Sergei P. Korolev -- a veteran of Stalin's gulag who studied captured V-2 rockets in Germany after World War II. By the time he became the top Soviet rocket scientist, Korolev's name was a state secret: He was referred to only as the "Chief Designer."

Gagarin was another matter. The 27-year old test pilot instantly became a Soviet hero and still enjoys an Elvis-like popularity here. His 108-minute flight might have served as the high mark of Soviet international prestige.

In response to Russia's successes, President John F. Kennedy pledged to put men on the moon. Confident Soviet scientists eagerly took up the challenge but, according to Gorshkov, quickly started to lose ground.

Soviet science of the time lacked the resources, and the technical sophistication, to solve the daunting problems presented by a moon mission. In particular, engineers had trouble developing a suitable rocket.

"We had failure after failure," said Gorshkov, who began his career at Energia as a junior engineer in the late 1960s and later became its chief designer. American astronauts walked on the moon in July 1969. By then, it was clear the Soviets would rather quit the race than come in second.

But since there was still civilian and military interest in manned missions, a team that included Gorshkov started designing the world's first space station, on Dec. 31, 1969. Borrowing from the design for a secret military project, the engineers built the space station Salyut ("salute"), its name a gesture to the memory of Gagarin, who died in a March 1968 air crash.

Salyut's first three-man crew arrived in June 1971, then headed back to Earth. By the time their capsule reached land, all three men had suffocated. Their capsule had depres- surized in the upper atmosphere, losing all its oxygen.

The Soviet program had already survived other tragedies, some of them hushed up by authorities. A series of Salyut stations were launched, and in 1979 two cosmonauts spent six months in space, smashing every endurance record.

"When we were making the first Salyut station, the longest cosmonauts stayed in space was 18 days," Gorshkov said. "We were very proud."

NASA, meanwhile, completed a series of Apollo moon missions, conducted scientific experiments aboard the small space station called Skylab and launched its shuttle program.

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