james oberg logo



space shuttle



Russian nostalgia for the good old days on Mir

James Oberg
The Washington Times
December 1, 1998, Tuesday, Final Edition

After years of preparation and delay, the first section of the International Space Station was launched recently at Russia's Baykonur Cosmodrome in the Central Asian republic of Kazakstan. According to the congratulatory speeches that followed, it is supposed to usher in a new era of space applications and of international amity.

But in the hours before blastoff, people both inside NASA's space program and outside wrestled with a final, nagging anxiety. A swelling tide of nationalist sentiment in Russia - from cosmonauts, space engineers, journalists and politicians - now calls for prolonging the life of the aged but rugged Mir station for two years or even longer, and even at the expense of the new International Space Station, if need be.

"It would be a crime against humanity to sink the orbital station," veteran cosmonaut and Kremlin space advisor Aleksandr Serebrov told newsmen in mid- September. Yuri Baturin, a Kremlin official who visited Mir on an inspection trip last August, agreed: "It's a sin to deorbit such a laboratory." And veteran cosmonaut Anatoliy Solovyov last week told Reuters that NASA's insistence on terminating Mir was a plot to subjugate Russia: "It's a purely political question that there is pressure for us to get rid of Mir as soon as possible," he said. "It is clear why. Who has the station? We do."

This point of view is rapidly gaining ground. "The premature disposal of Mir makes as much sense as dumping your old but still working car before even buying a new one," said Aleksey Mitrofanov, chief of the Duma's geopolitical affairs committee. The Space Council of the Russian Academy of Sciences issued a report that states that Mir remains usable and should be kept operating for another five years. According to Boris Ostrumov, deputy general director of the Energia Corporation, which owns the Russian station, "speaking purely objectively, Mir could go on operating for another ten years."

Although Mir's reputation was badly damaged by a series of disasters in 1997, the station has rebounded this year. This is largely based on massive amounts of spare parts and new equipment ferried up aboard U.S. space shuttles, to the tune of the equivalent of a decade's worth of Russian logistics support. Other safety concerns, such as deterioration of the aging, corroded hull, have been resolved after intensive verification efforts by American and Russian crewmen. While other age-related issues remain open, for the moment they do not seem to threaten the kind of instant disaster from which the crew would be unable to dash for safety into their escape capsule.

NASA insists it has nothing against Mir itself. Space officials are only concerned that financial resources needed for the Russian segments of the International Space Station may be diverted to Mir. At a press conference in Houston on November 13, NASA's ISS program director Randy Brinkley explained that the U.S. side believed that Russia simply did not have the resources to build and launch supply ships to both space stations.

According to official NASA flight manifests for the International Space Station, Russia must launch ten supply ships of the Soyuz and Progress type in calendar year 2000. Annual production has recently dropped to five, however, which is what Mir needs every year. NASA believes it is barely possible that Russia can produce the promised 10 vehicles for ISS. But if in 2000 five more supply ships must be used to keep Mir going, that would require the Russians to triple their production rate in little more than a year. There is no sign of this increase in the space factories.

Leading the commitment to the International Space Station is Yuriy Koptev, head of the Russian Space Agency. At a press briefing last month, he asserted that any Russian withdrawal from the ISS project would lead to cancelation of all Western commercial space contracts with Russia and a consequent rapid collapse of the entire Russian space industry. Meanwhile, Anatoliy Kiselyov, director of the Khrunichev Bureau, has also come out strongly for continued Western cooperation.

At the same time, Mr. Koptev assured listeners that "We're not abandoning Mir." And despite the impression that NASA officials may have gotten, Mr. Koptev insisted, "No agreements with the Americans that we have to abandon Mir have been reached." When pressed, NASA spokesmen have confirmed that there is no written Russian promise to dump Mir next summer - it is just a NASA assumption based on provisional Russian comments.

But the pro-Western Messrs. Koptev and Kiselyov are growing increasingly isolated in Moscow. Their chief government supporters were Viktor Chernomyrdin, fired by President Yeltsin earlier this year and rejected by the Russian parliament when Mr. Yeltsin tried to bring him back, and Boris Nemtsov, the reformist deputy prime minister who was also recently sacked.

The new Russian government headed by Gennady Primakov has handed space planning over to Yuriy Maslyukov, a protege of Mr. Primakov's and now the first deputy prime minister. Formerly a high official in the Soviet space program, Mr. Maslyukov has recently surfaced as another supporter of maintaining Mir in orbit. Neither Mr. Primakov nor Mr. Maslyukov has voiced public support of Russia's commitment to the ISS.

Russia's desperate financial situation means it can't afford to purchase replacement space hardware so must either keep using the old hardware or terminate all research. If the hardware will not be transferred to the ISS, then Russia's only choice is to keep using it aboard Mir.

There is one alternative, which Mr. Koptev referred to simultaneously with NASA denials that it was even being considered. He disclosed that he is negotiating with NASA for a new Space Shuttle mission to Mir to pick up several tons of still-usable equipment and return to it Earth. There it would be refurbished and carried back into space, to the ISS, aboard another shuttle flight. The cost to the U.S,, to save the Russians about $100 million in replacement hardware costs, would be $1 billion worth of space shuttle flights.

Such a new shuttle-to-Mir mission wouldn't be needed until Mir itself had no further use of the scientific equipment. The consensus in Moscow is that this point won't be reached for another three or four years at least.

In the meantime, the bankrupt Russians will be getting no benefit from the International Space Station, only more and more costs. They will have little if any research time on it, and practically no scientific equipment to use. Whatever cash NASA passes over won't cover the operational expenses of fruitlessly holding up their end of the original bargain.

Under such conditions, the steadfastness of the handful of partnership loyalists within the Russian government will be sorely stressed. It will take all the diplomacy and charm - and bribes, bullying and threats - the United States can muster to keep Russia loyal to a relationship which is growing less attractive by the day.

Under such weakening commitments, the pleasure surrounding the birth of the first ISS module may be temporary. For the International Space Station, it's no longer just diplomatic issues involved -the future of the entire U.S. space program may now be at stake.

James Oberg is a 22-year veteran of the Space Shuttle program.



oberg corner piece

home | profile | articles | books | lectures | jim speaks | humor
links | email

Copyright 2010 James Oberg. All Rights Reserved
Site Designed and Maintained by YoeYo.com

oberg corner piece