SPACE

Masters of the cosmos

The space-race ethos is alive in Moscow

RIC DOLPHIN October 10 1988
SPACE

Masters of the cosmos

The space-race ethos is alive in Moscow

RIC DOLPHIN October 10 1988

Masters of the cosmos

SPACE

The space-race ethos is alive in Moscow

The “right stuff” for Soviet cosmonauts in the final decade of the 20th century will not be bravery so much as patience. During likely trips by interplanetary spacecraft stretching into years, patience will be all that prevents the solar system voyagers, packed into slender tubes of aluminum, from becoming unbalanced. While the United States continues to apply most of its cosmic efforts to re-establishing its short-term, low-orbit space shuttle program, the Soviets—as they have been doing for 15 years—are testing their cosmonauts to the limits of human endurance. On the Soviets’ one cramped space station, men and women have spent as long as 11 months, occasionally becoming snappish with mission control. Inessa Kozlovski, a researcher with the Soviet space agency, Glaskosmos, told Maclean’s this month in Moscow: “You might, perhaps, compare them to monks. Each one devotes his energies to a very single-minded purpose. And that brings contentment.”

Patience, devotion and single-mindedness are hallmarks of the Soviet space program—currently estimated to be costing more than $40 billion a year.

Since the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, the Soviet Union—while never as flamboyant or as technologically advanced as the United States—has stolidly created a space program that, in selected areas, has become the best in the world. The U.S.S.R. has not yet put a man on the moon, perfected a reusable space orbiter or landed a probe on Mars like the Americans. But Moscow’s space station program, involving sustained human sojourns in orbit together with its almost routine rocket launch procedure have left the West behind.

Despite Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s statement in May urging the two nations to “co-operate to master the cosmos,” the space-race ethos remains alive in Moscow. “We each move in different directions,” said Stepan Bogodyazh, director of international

affairs for Glaskosmos, which is responsible for promoting Soviet space goods and services to foreign industry. “We have chosen the direction of orbital stations as the way in which we want to move.”

Like the Americans, the Soviets have had to overcome adversity. Four cosmonauts have died in space, rockets have exploded on the launching pad and planetary probes have gone hurtling uselessly into the void of space. Still, the Soviet space program has progressed to the point that, last year, one promi-

nent U.S. magazine declared the U.S.S.R. to be winning the space race. Using dependable rockets whose design has changed little in 25 years, the Soviet Union last year had 95 launches compared with the Americans' eight. Some of the Soviet rockets were used to send crews back and forth between their space stations. Some of the rockets have been fired to launch military satellites and others for lifting an increasing number of foreign communications satellites into orbit. “If

the first stage of our space effort was seen as research,” said Bogodyazh, whose duties also include selling advertising space on the sides of rockets, “now it is becoming a practical, commercial program. There is a movement toward the industrialization of space.”

Taking advantage of America’s continuing technical difficulties, the Soviets have industriously courted foreign companies for their satellite business. Hughes Aircraft Co., the communications-satellite subsidiary of General Motors Corp., last year asked American Secretary of State George Shultz for a decision on U.S. policy toward buying space on a Soviet Proton rocket in the absence of the shuttle. Shultz, although he had signed a U.S.-U.S.S.R. agreement on co-operation in space science with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze last year, declined. “We must never,” he told GM, “allow the United States to become dependent upon the Soviet Union for access to space.”

And other than a few exchanges involving

experts in such life sciences as biology, the two nations remain on separate tracks toward manned space flight. Since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s 1973-1974 Skylab 4 mission orbiting Earth fractured and crashed into the Indian Ocean and southwestern Australia in 1979, the Americans have ignored long-duration manned missions and only now are planning to begin space assembly of another station in 1995.

The Soviets’ long-range sights have never

wavered from the planet Mars. Through their manned program, the Soviets have put a priority on visiting the red planet by the year 2010.

Dr. Albert Galeev, deputy director of the Soviet Union’s Institute for Space Tests, told Maclean’s “Most planetary physicists believe that Mars is the planet most similar to Earth. People could live there in the future. Mankind has always had a dream to go to other planets. But to prepare for this kind of mission, you need to know much more about other planets than we know now.”

In July, the Soviets launched two unmanned spacecraft from the huge Baikonur Cosmodrome in the steppes of Kazakhstan, a Soviet republic in the south-central farming region. Destined to touch down on the Martian moon Phobos next January, the first craft contained a stationary landing mechanism, the second, a hopping vehicle designed to explore the surface of the small, potatoshaped moon. But a computer error sent the first craft into what one scientist called “a deep, lethargic sleep,” rushing irretrievably away from Earth. That brought the number of unsuccessful Soviet Mars missions to 16. However, the second Phobos probe continues its 200-day, 50-million-mile journey. “Ultimately,” said Galeev, speaking the English he pérfected during six months of study at Harvard University, “we should not suffer, provided Phobos 2 continues to

work well. Out of the 20 instruments that were on board the first Phobos, 18 are also on board the Phobos 2.” Another significant aid in getting the Soviets to Mars is their heavy-lift Energia rocket, which they unveiled last year and which can carry 100 tons— compared with the Saturn V payload of 140 tons.

Without a doubt, the Soviets’ biggest ac-

complishment in the planning for Mars is the cumulative years of experience with men in space. Since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, Soviet cosmonauts have spent more than 5,000 days in space—the equivalent of almost 14 years—compared with the Americans’ 1,800. Soviet scientists have used space stations to test the effects of zero gravity and isolation on humans, plants and animals. Cosmonauts regularly dock their Soyuz spacecraft at one of the station’s six ports and then they spend several months at the station, change places with a new crew and, finally, return to earth.

Life with only two or three crew mates can be tiresome. Cosmonaut Alexander Alexandrov, 45, who has spent two lengthy periods in space stations, told Maclean’s “You really miss the talk and physical contact with other people. We have videotapes and musical recordings that we bring up, and there is always a guitar on board so we can play and sing if we wish. And there are books and newspapers brought by supply o ships—what ecstasy to read a newso paper in space after being without § reading material for several months! ¡3 My son, Sergei—he’s 12—has no ^ interest in becoming a cosmonaut. He sees how demanding it is.”

Those demands will likely continue into the next century as the Soviets continue their course toward winning the space race. And as the American space shuttle Discovery continued to circle the globe, the orbiting cosmonauts, like the monks in an earlier era, will be meditating on its progress.

RIC DOLPHIN with

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH