WORLD

The last Soviet

A cosmonaut will return to a changed world

MALCOLM GRAY February 24 1992
WORLD

The last Soviet

A cosmonaut will return to a changed world

MALCOLM GRAY February 24 1992

The last Soviet

A cosmonaut will return to a changed world

COMMONWEALTH OF INDEPENDENT STATES

When Sergei Krikalev hurtled into space in a Soyuz (Union) rocket capsule nine months ago, he joined a select club. Since April 12,1961, only 71 other Soviet cosmonauts have followed the lead of space pioneer Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit Earth. But Krikalev, a sports-loving, 33year-old mechanical engineer from St. Petersburg, will be a man from another time and place when he finally returns to Earth next month after 282 days aboard the space station Mir (Peace). Already, the cosmonaut has completed more than 4,200 orbits of Earth aboard the six-year-old Mir, about one every 90 minutes. But 280 miles below his flight path, Krikalev’s homeland has transformed itself with equally

stunning speed. When he lands near the Baikonur space centre in the central Asian republic of Kazakhstan on March 25, he will be in what is now a foreign country: Kazakhstan declared itself independent after August’s failed hard-line coup.

Said veteran cosmonaut Alexander Alexandrov, 49, in Moscow last week: “Sergei will have a hard time adjusting.”

In the same way, a space program that can boast of achievements dating from the world’s first successful satellite launching—Sputnik1 in 1957—is adjusting to the hard times that have accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist rule. The 11 republics in the Commonwealth of Independent States that succeeded the union have agreed to continue a joint space program.

But the 1992 budget allocation of 200 million rubles is only 2.5 per cent of what the state spent on space in 1989—and the equivalent of just $2 million at current rates of exchange. The shrinking space budget has gutted the oncevaunted space program of the former Soviet Union which, in the 1960s, competed with the United States in a race to the moon. By last month, financial problems were so severe that technicians at Zvezdny Gorod (Star City), the Moscow-area complex that houses the space agency’s main flight-control centre, threatened to strike for higher wages.

Krikalev himself had been scheduled to return to Earth last October, but space officials—needing to keep an engineer aboard Mir in order to service the station—extended his tour. He still speeds through space, high above that turbulence and change in his home country, in the company now of Alexander Volkov, the pilot-commander who replaced another cosmonaut halfway through a mission that began during another era. Because Volkov joined Mir in October, after his home republic of Ukraine declared independence, Krikalev is officially the last Soviet in space. Since the cosmonaut blasted off for Mir on May 18, 1991, the Soviet Union and the rule of its last president, Mikhail Gorbachev, have become

history, rendering the CCCP (U.S.S.R in Cyrillic script) insignia on his uniform a relic. Even Krikalev’s native city no longer exists as he knew it—Leningrad reverted last year to its pre-revolutionary name of St. Petersburg.

Krikalev is well aware of those changes: during each orbit, ground controllers can contact the space station throughout the 20 minutes that it takes for Mir to sweep across the old Soviet empire. And, they say, they make a point of passing on news of important events. The people who most frequently talk to Krikalev—over a communications link that sometimes features two-way television pictures—are from a relatively small group that includes his wife, Elena, and staff psychol-

ogist Alexander Slyed, as well

as Alexandrov and other cosmonauts.

Before the birth of the Krikalevs’ daughter, Olga, two

years ago, Elena worked as an engineer at the Star City control centre. Last week, in an interview with Maclean ’s, Elena said that she could even use a radio-telephone link-up to reach her husband from their home, a wellappointed flat in a northern Moscow compound that they share with 33 other cosmonaut families. But, she added, “I usually prefer to talk to him from the space control centre so that he can see Olga on television.”

Married only three years, Elena Krikalev said that she sometimes finds it hard to endure

a separation that has already lasted nine months. Declared Elena, a slim, fair-haired woman who declined to divulge her age: “We had never been apart before for such a long period. I expected him to come back in half a year, so you can imagine how upset I was when I learned that they were not going to bring him down until March.” She added that she and her husband never discuss politics during their brief talks—conversations that usually take place each week. Said Elena: “Sergei is a strong person and he understands that everything possible is being done for him and his comrade, Alexander Volkov. What he says he misses are his home and family.”

For his part, psychologist Slyed, 41, confirmed Elena’s description of Krikalev as a mentally and physically strong man. Said Slyed: “They are a young couple, and in many ways this separation is harder for her, particularly with all the problems we are experiencing in the former Soviet Union. I talked to her today, and she said that it was tiring looking after a small child.” By contrast, he said, Krikalev

rarely revealed his feelings in the terse daily conversations he had with the psychologist. Added Slyed, a 16-year veteran of keeping cosmonauts reasonably calm in space: “Sergei is a workaholic and not very talkative. When he does talk, it is usually about problems connected with work in the space station.”

But it was Alexandrov who could best offer insights into the blend of exhilaration and sensory deprivation that is Krikalev’s daily experience in space. During his 24-year career as a cosmonaut, Alexandrov has logged a total of 309 days and 10 hours in voyages aboard the spacecraft Salyut-7 (Salute) and Mir. “You never forget the view,” he said. “But you get extremely tired of plastic and metal and start longing for wooden objects. My family used to send me autumn leaves and grass through the cargo ship.” Added Alexandrov: “Krikalev, too, misses those things, and he has told me that he feels uneasy about all the political changes. Undoubtedly, it is going to be difficult

for him. Remember how it was for Soviet cosmonauts. They were patriots who believed that they were doing something important for their country. Now, things are no longer so clear-cut.”

Meanwhile, Glavkosmos, the state space agency, has tried to defray the costs of maintaining Mir in orbit by offering foreigners a ride that is literally out of this world. During the past two years, customers including the Japanese television network, Tokyo Broadcasting System and both the Austrian and British governments have paid up to $12 million each to place short-term astronauts aboard Mir. Krikalev, in fact, expects to spend his last eight days in orbit hosting a German cosmonaut who will then return to Earth with him. Spaceprogram officials in Moscow add that a Canadian company had expressed interest in a similar venture last month. The firm—which they refused to identify on the grounds that the negotiations had been conducted privately—

apparently backed out when Glavkosmos declined to halve the price of the space ride to $5 million.

Despite such sporadic infusions of foreign capital, many Muscovites complain that their country can no longer afford the upkeep on the deteriorating space station, which has already had its service life stretched until 1995. Noted the daily newspaper Moskovsky Komsolets recently: “A week-long space tour aboard the Soviet station costs the foreign participant about $10 million. But it is dubious how gainful such missions are for our side, since those fees are offset by the expenses of maintaining Mir and the launch of a spaceship to reach the station.”

Many space-program employees clearly believe that they should get more of the money that is available. On Jan. 19, technicians at Star City warned that they would go on strike unless they received an increase in wages averaging 500 rubles per month, about $5. They staged their protest to coincide with the docking of a cargo ship alongside Mir. That timing, and a control room crowded with signs and placards expressing their plight, received wide publicity from journalists who went to Star City to cover the monthly resupplying of the space station. But even space celebrities, the cosmonauts themselves, do not receive lavish financial rewards. Musa Manarov, the cosmonaut who set a world record when his 366-day voyage in space ended in 1988, earns just 600 rubles per month.

Other officials, Alexandrov among them, voice their concern that friction between the former republics will finish off the enfeebled space program. Said Alexandrov: “Kazakhstan may have got what it wanted when it nationalized the Baikonur centre last summer. But the Kazakhs cannot afford to

operate it and the place is beginning to nm down.” He added: “Even basic repairs are no longer being carried out. Kazakh authorities no longer grant our transport planes the right to refuel when they fly to Baikonur.” As a result, cosmonauts sometimes have to take the train from Moscow to Kazakhstan—a two-day journey—just as they did in 1946 at the very beginning of the Soviet space program.

In Moscow, Elena Krikalev described her husband as simply a man who was finishing a long, tough assignment rather than the last of the Soviet hero-cosmonauts. Said Elena: “It makes me unhappy to see Sergei looking tired sometimes and counting the days before he can return home.” At that point, Krikalev will join his wife and child in a task that could prove as challenging as a 10-month space voyage: adjusting to the rigors of daily life in post-Soviet society.

MALCOLM GRAY