Russians shun chance to join the next generation of cosmonauts

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Attempts to recruit a new generation of cosmonauts in Russia have faltered for the first time in 40 years with a rare recruitment competition attracting only a handful of applicants.

As part of the then Soviet Union, Russia put the first man in space 45 years ago but it seems that few young Russians are keen to follow in the famous footsteps of Yuri Gagarin today.

The recruitment drive, only the sixteenth of its kind since 1966, was launched last year by Energia, Russia's giant state-controlled space corporation that designs and makes spacecrafts. In the Soviet era the same competition regularly attracted 3,500 applicants, all eager to become flight engineer, train in Moscow's "Star City" and visit the then Mir space station. In those days, only 20 of the thousands who applied would go on to become trainee cosmonauts - and of those, fewer than ten passed the medical and other tests to become qualified cosmonauts, which, back then, was highly fashionable career.

Gagarin had lent the profession charisma, but trainees also enjoyed access to better housing and luxury goods. The Soviet authorities poured billions of roubles into the space programme as a matter of national pride.

Now, however, the situation is dramatically different. Energia has received around only ten applications in the 18 months since it opened the recruitment competition. Of those, only one - that of 28-year old Elena Serova, a technical specialist - has proved viable. The others didn't even pass the medical test.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and Energia has begun scouring Moscow's technical colleges in the hope of getting engineering students to apply. But those students who have shown interest so far have not met the stringent entry conditions.

The recruitment crisis is not confined to Energia's cosmonaut programme. It is the same story in its manufacturing and design departments too. In the Soviet era, thousands of young graduates rushed to fill its ranks but now the average age of an Energia employee is 46.2 years, five more than the average in Russian industry. Energia currently boasts 15 trained cosmonauts who make up just under half of Russia's 37-strong team. Nasa, its arch-rival, has 101 trained astronauts on standby.

According to Vladimir Khodakov, a specialist in spacecraft manufacturing, one of the main reasons for the shortage is how rarely cosmonauts get to go into space these days. The International Space Station accommodates only three cosmonauts for six months at a time. Many have waited patiently for their turn only to become too old and miss their chance.

"The hardest thing is the waiting," Khodakov told the daily Trud newspaper. "There are no guarantees and many people have waited years for their dream to be realised and given up."

Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is money. Salaries for "non-flying cosmonauts" can be as low as £300 a month. Those who are lucky enough to do a stint in space are not likely to become rich either. A six-month non-stop tour of duty on the International Space Station will net them a one-off payment of around one million roubles (£20,000).

Though Russia still celebrates Cosmonauts' Day on 12 April, the date that Gagarin blasted into space, Khodakov believes space flight holds less of a romantic allure for young people today. "Earlier it was a unique profession covered in glory and honour. Today's generation is more pragmatic. They ask themselves: is it worth the risk?"

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