Science: Come fly with Mir, we need the money: Russia's ageing space station is virtually all that remains of the country's historic extraterrestrial achievements. Peter Bond reports

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The Independent Online
ANOTHER chapter in the long-running saga of Russia's attempts to colonise space has ended. Last week, after 21 days aboard the Mir space station, French Air Force Colonel Jean-Pierre Haignere returned to Earth with two Russian companions who had been circling the planet for the past six months.

The furious debate over the American Freedom space station has obscured the fact that Mir is the world's only operational space station. It has now been circling the globe for seven-and-a-half years, a remarkable testimony to the durability of Russian technology and ingenuity. Its designers insist that, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, it should remain operational until 1996-97.

The importance of Mir is emphasised by a unique space symposium to be held in Washington this week. The station's leading designers will be on hand to present and market their expertise in building and maintaining the Mir space station. It is no coincidence that this meeting comes when the White House, Nasa and many American and European companies are showing increasing interest in Russian space hardware.

Desperate to obtain human flight experience, and frustrated by the expense and difficulty in arranging for its astronauts to fly on Nasa's space shuttle, the European Space Agency (ESA) signed a dollars 54m (pounds 37m) agreement on 7 July for two trips to Mir.

The candidates chosen by ESA will start a course of training at Star City near Moscow in August. Officials expect either a Spaniard or a German to fly on the first mission, a 30-day visit in September 1994. A much more demanding assignment faces Christer Fuglesang, a Swedish physicist, and Thomas Reiter, a German test pilot. Assuming the elderly Mir is still operational in August 1995, one of these will spend 135 days on board and make at least one spacewalk.

France remains Mir's best customer, and has already booked its fifth crewed flight for 1996. The French government pays about dollars 12.5m for each flight.

Other international 'guest' missions are in the pipeline. An American is expected to fly to Mir in March 1995, spend at least three months on board, then return in a shuttle. This is part of a non-commercial exchange deal signed last October in which it was agreed to fly at least one Russian on the shuttle in return for a long-term visit to Mir by an American.

Several other notable events are scheduled for Mir over the next few years. A cosmonaut is due to spend a record 18 months in orbit, starting in December. He will probably return in the US shuttle to a specially equipped medical facility in America. It would seem that the Russians still harbour dreams of a human flight to Mars, as the only justification for such a daunting mission is to learn more about the effects of long-term weightlessness on the human body.

Several spacewalks are also scheduled for later this year. Cosmonauts Vasili Tsiblyev and Alexander Serebrov will use a space crane to move two giant solar panels from one end of the Mir complex to another, thus clearing the way for a safe approach and docking by the shuttle.

But the future of Mir is looking increasingly problematic. The space station is well past its 'sell-by' date and is only kept operational by an increasingly onerous and time-consuming programme of repairs and maintenance. The launch of two additional research laboratories is continually being postponed due to lack of funds, and it seems increasingly unlikely that they will ever be attached to the station. However, Mir is one of the major sources of foreign currency for the hard-pressed Russian space industry, and even the Yeltsin administration recognises the need to keep it operational for as long as possible.

There is no doubt that the Russians are well ahead of their Western competitors in certain areas of space technology. US officials are evaluating the Soyuz spacecraft as an emergency rescue vehicle for the Freedom station. Proposals to merge Freedom with the next generation Mir have been rejected, but further Freedom contracts may well be open to Russian enterprises. Meanwhile, although disappointed by this rejection, the Russians still insist that orbital assembly of Mir 2 will begin in 1997.

Apart from the success of Mir, Russia has sold two unfuelled Topaz nuclear reactors for use in Earth-orbiting satellites to the American Department of Defense and Energy at the incredibly low price of dollars 13m. This compares with the American SP-100 programme, which has spent more than dollars 400m trying to develop a similar reactor. A dollars 20m bid for another four reactors has recently been made.

Money matters now dominate Russian space policy. Crews on Mir are working under contract for the first time. A few weeks ago, all work on development of the Buran shuttle ceased because no funds were available. Full-scale models of the Mir station are being offered for sale at the bargain price of dollars 8m. Even the priceless antiques left over from the golden age of Soviet space supremacy are going under the hammer; in June a selection of these space artefacts was sold to the Kansas Cosmosphere for a knockdown dollars 1m.

Not everyone is happy with this space sale of the century. A recent article in Moscow News was headed: 'Russia selling out its space technologies'. Gennadi Khromov, a Russian space expert, discussed how the country was transferring 'its entire colossal experience and technical breakthroughs to Americans almost free'.

Similar sentiments were voiced in the newspaper Rossiyskiye Vesti, which complained about how the West controlled the commercial launch market by preventing satellites containing US technology from flying aboard Russian rockets. Although this embargo has been partially breached by a dollars 36m contract to launch an Inmarsat satellite in 1995 and a deal that allows Russia two commercial launches a year from 1996, there is no doubt that the West still holds the upper hand.

This was shown most clearly by the announcement last week that Russia had cancelled an agreement to help India develop its own advanced rocket engines. American officials claimed that such aid broke the treaties concerning non-proliferation of missile technology. The Russian side caved in under pressure from the US government, which threatened to withhold potentially lucrative space- station contracts.

In a sense, this is understandable. As Russian Space Agency official Vadim Zlotnikov told journalists two weeks ago, the space industry lost 10 per cent of its skilled personnel last year, government finances were too low and too late in arriving and unless vast sums were invested in the Baikonur cosmodrome, it might be too derelict to launch rockets next year.

With the space industry and infrastructure falling apart, it is scarcely surprising that Russian officials will do almost anything to save their once proud space industry. However, for those who grew up in the era of Soviet space supremacy, it is difficult to adjust to the transformation of the Russian bear into a tame panda only too willing to roll over and beg scraps from the American eagle.

Peter Bond's new book 'Reaching for the Stars - the illustrated history of manned spaceflight' is published by Cassell at pounds 15.99.

(Photograph omitted)