Leading Article: The Russian mission to make do and mend

Click to follow
The Independent Online
To those who despair that science does not get enough attention in the media, and that it has lost its attraction for those not directly involved, we would say only one word: Mir. Mention the orbiting Russian space station, and people who normally profess disdain for physics or chemistry will talk eagerly about zero-gravity toilets (especially those that get blocked, as Mir's did), fires in space (another unfortunate little incident), how you actually dock two orbiting spacecraft, and what it must be like to be stuck in a cold, cramped washing machine of a place in a chaotic orbit because - as happened yesterday - the main computer has crashed.

Mir has become an orbiting episode of The Simpsons, a byword for getting it wrong in space. Small wonder that the British-American astronaut Michael Foale asked for the Russian relief crew to bring 100 tablets of Tylenol painkillers when they flew up last week. By contrast, the US space agency Nasa piles triumph upon triumph. Life on Mars! Pathfinder on Mars! Sojourner rover on Mars! Picture-postcard sunrise on Mars! Meanwhile, last November the Russian mission to Mars wobbled off the launchpad and then crashed in the Pacific. Altogether the US, together with Japan and Europe, make a better fist of making things that work in space. So why not just pack the astronauts into their escape capsule, let them get back to a well- earned shower and proper food, and send Mir off into outer space, or slip back into the atmosphere to burn up?

One reason is that Mir represents something very important to post-Soviet Russia. It was meant to last only five years, but has been up there, twirling past 280 kilometres above our heads, once every 90 minutes or so for 12 years. It's an important link to a time when Russian engineers and scientists could challenge the world on many fronts - a claim they are unlikely to make now, unless it is as the country best able to make limousines bulletproof for clients involved in shady dealings.

Equally, Russians need Mir and its veritable awfulness. It is a reminder that it is not just the man or woman in the Moscow street who is having a tough time of it; even the highly-trained cosmonauts have to make do and mend. The soap opera in which the players can't use soap (water stocks are dwindling) and can't play music (the power has been cut by computer failure) holds a grim fascination. It's like watching England's cricket team trying to save a game against Australia. Actually, they do better than the England team: on the whole, the cosmonauts muddle through, adopting a combination of the sealing-wax-and-twine approach, and the Russian equivalent of the stiff upper lip. Heath Robinson would be proud of them.

All that aside, Mir does in fact have a political and economic value to Russia. The US and Japan are serious about building a full-scale orbiting space station called Freedom, on which construction work is intended to begin some time in the next two years. Canada and Europe are also involved; and Russia wants to play its part, too. It won't quite look like the enormous ferris wheel of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it will sprawl over an area as big as two football fields. The plan suggests that Space Station Freedom will cost more than $20bn (pounds 12.5bn), and possibly as much again in servicing and operating costs over its expected 15-year life span.

No single nation can pay that bill. The US Congress has repeatedly balked at elements of the cost, leading to a PR offensive by Nasa of which the "Life on Mars" meteorite may be seen as an element. Certainly, Nasa's well-choreographed successes have helped secure its share of funding for the space station, which will be important for medical and other research (including high-cost, private-sector experiments) as well as scientific experiments.

So, the US is happy to cough up; Japan can pay its way; Europe and Canada, with some protest, will foot their share of the final demand. But where can Russia, with its awful currency and economic problems, find the hard cash to buy a piece of Freedom? It cannot afford to be left out. But the truth is, it cannot afford to be included, either - at least, not paying with real money. Russia cannot afford to build and launch a new space station; so, until Freedom is built, it offers a useful place to hire out to private groups and research organisations which want to do their own small-scale experiments. Unfortunately, the crash with a supply ship holed exactly the module which was being used for scientific experiments on some plants and beetles - another blow to Russian prestige, and its bank balance, not to mention the effect on the beetles.

What is the point of Mir, then? To the Russians, it is that they can show off - no, honestly - their make-do approach to space. Whereas the Americans practise their space missions "to the point of neurosis" (to quote one Russian controller last week), the Russians know that it is impossible to prepare for everything. All you can really take up there is a state of mind like a Boy Scout: be prepared. The missions on a space station will long be unpredictable, and all sorts of things will go wrong. Mir is just the beginning. It may look from here as if the best thing for Mir would be to send it spinning off into the hinterland of space, never to be seen or heard of again (unless, perhaps, by some baffled extraterrestrials, circa Stardate 1448569306780943). But for the Russians, there is as much to lose by failing as there is by going on. Which tells the whole story, when you come down to it.