Science

The star-spangled Soviets

Allan Bailey December 4 1978
Science

The star-spangled Soviets

Allan Bailey December 4 1978

The star-spangled Soviets

Science

Allan Bailey

As the tiny mechanical womb sped on and on, the soft strumming of a guitar lured their thoughts from the interminable emptiness. For cosmonauts Vladimir Kovalenok and Alexander Ivanchenkov, music provided a

precious link with the planet from which they had been separated longer than any men in history. The arduous 140-day stint aboard Soviet space station Salyut 6 came to an end for the high-flying troubadors one day last month as they woozily climbed from the ferry capsule to a hero's welcome. Crowning a string of triumphs this year, their record-breaking space odyssey propels the Soviet Union closer than ever to its goal of the permanent occupancy of space. And, for the first time since they galvanized the world with the launch of the first satellite—Sputnik I—and the first astronaut—Yuri Gagarin—the Soviets appear to be in a position to seriously challenge U.S. dominance in space.

The Soviets have had little to crow about since their poor showing in the Great Moon Race of the 1960s. But now, armed with an annual budget estimated at four times the $4.3 billion allotted the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for 1978, they have bounced back into the limelight with an impressive space “first." And while the Russian space program has roared into high gear—with an eventual aim of establishing permanent cosmodromes as a platform for manned interplanetary space flights—the U.S. program, to the dismay of NASA officiáis and administration critics, has slipped into neutral. The star of the U.S. space effort—the reusable shuttle—is

already six months behind schedule, overweight and plagued with engine trouble. Expected to get off the launch pad Sept. 28, 1979, the shuttle will be used to ferry astronauts and scientists into space and eventually act as an inexpensive “pickup truck" to carry satellites and unmanned interplanetary

probes into space. A recent policy statement by President Jimmy Carter, however, effectively doused any optimism that the vehicle might be used for such glamorous schemes as solar power stations, space factories and colonies. As one fellow Democrat glumly observed, "it [the space policy] could have been more imaginative." Others have been much more harsh. Republican Senator Harrison H. Schmitt, himself a former astronaut, says he is “really concerned that the administration seems oblivious to the importance of an expanded space program for the free world." Schmitt, the last man on the moon, complains that Carter’s policy "is one of continued retrenchment. In words he says, 'we’re not going to be second to anyone.’ But in fact the kind of policy articulated will ensure that we are second.” The alacrity with which the Soviets are attacking the medical and technical barriers to space travel has impressed NASA observers. Said one: "We’re going to wake up one day and they’ll be No. 1.”

Two months before they hit the silk high above the Kazakhstan Steppes, Commander Kovalenok and Flight Engineer Ivanchenkov had put the Soviets ahead of the U.S. record of 937 total man-days in space. Their good health upon return has banished doctors’ fears that too long in the dream-like condition of weightlessness would do irreparable damage to the body. During the 140-day marathon, the cosmonauts had a vigorous three-hour daily workout on a mini-gym designed to prevent loss of muscle tone. Past experience had shown that without the constant pull of gravity the muscles atrophy, the calcium level of bones decreases and blood circulation becomes impaired. The pair

wore vacuum pantaloons to prevent the blood rushing from the legs and pooling in the upper body, as it tends to do during weightlessness. Even after all the precautions, the cosmonauts were a little dazed when exposed to the crushing force of gravity back on earth. Kovalenok complained that even a cup of tea sat like a dumbbell in his stomach. Nevertheless, Flight Director Alexei Yeliseyev maintains that the Soviet Union is now ready for flights of practically unlimited duration.

Soviet officials are just as pleased with their new space station, Salyut 6, in which the two cosmonauts spent their 140 days in space. It has been visited by eight other cosmonauts and four Progress automatic resupply ships in its one year of operation. On board the space station, the visiting cosmonauts—including a Czechoslovak, an East German and a Pole—shot miles of film of the earth, produced alloys and electronic crystals in a special blast furnace and performed unspecified genetic experiments. Salyut 6, with its two docking ports, not only permits space capsules from earth to visit for the first time, but allows cargo ships to bring up water, air, food and fuel. On one flight the Progress delivered a guitar and fur shoes.

The success of the new station lends weight to the statement made earlier this year by Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev: "Soviet science considers the creation of orbital stations with changing crews as the highway to man in space.” Such a polity is likely to yield major advantages over the U.S. program, which is limited to the maximum 30 days in space, for which the shuttle is designed. Moreover, the Soviets will

eventually outnumber the U.S. astronauts, limited to seven at a time with the shuttle. The head of the Soviet Space Research Institute, Yuri Zaytsev, says that, "in future it may become more practical to build stations which will work for decades with some 20 to 30 cosmonauts working in shifts." This would eventually evolve, he said, into “super-large multi-purpose space complexes meant for 100 or more spacemen." Apart from housing laboratories and space manufacturing facilities, these orbiting workbenches would be used to develop orbiting power stations, "tens of square kilometres in area," that would tap the sun’s energy and beam it down for use in large cities.

Until earlier this year, the major flaw had been that manned and unmanned supply ships were enormously expensive because they were good for one return trip only. This weakness is also the strength of the U.S. reusable shuttle. Last spring, however, Aviation Week & Space Technology startled space watchers with the news that the Soviets have been secretly testing their own version of the shuttle. The Soviet shuttle, smaller and lighter than the U.S. Enterprise, breaks the assumed U.S. monopoly on flexible and inexpensive access to space. The revelation also makes more plausible the notion of large space stations and the possibility raised by cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov that such orbiting workshops would be used to construct large vehicles for a manned mission to Mars. (The idea of launching interplanetary expeditions from a space station, rather than from earth, is being developed because the weight of fuel needed for the round trip would make a blast-off from earth impracticable.)

For the U.S., no such adventures are in sight. Instead, in the Carter homily, "during the period of Saturn/Apollo missions, we were pilgrims in space, ranging far from home in search of knowledge. Now we will become shepherds tending our technological flocks, but like the shepherds of old, we will keep our eyes fixed on heaven." In other words, for solar power satellites, space stations, and interplanetary flights— heaven can wait. With the zeal of space pioneer Wernher Von Braun some 26 years ago, the likes of Senator Schmitt are lobbying to rekindle fire in the U.S. space effort with new legislation. For the moment, however, the likelihood of a new space race is remote. In the words of President Carter’s chief science adviser, Dr. Frank Press: "If the Soviets decide to spend $70 billion to land men on Mars in five years, we say: 'God bless them.’ " Q