JULY 21, 1997
With problems aboard the space station MIR still in the foreground, are Russians beginning to lose their confidence in the space program? Simon Marks reports.
JIM LEHRER: Mir and the Russian space program. Special Correspondent Simon Marks reports from Russia.
SIMON MARKS: If you want to know what's happened to the prestige of Russia's space program, head to the all Russian exhibition center in Moscow. Here, the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, no longer smiles down on a display of Soviet space memorabilia. Instead, he's gazing at an enormous TV and hi-fi warehouse.
Traders from Bangladesh hurry to make their next sail to Russians, who say their nation's glorious history in space is at an end. The few remaining exhibits are stuffed into a corner to make way for more commerce.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (speaking through interpreter) I used to come here as a kid when it was the space pavilion. Our truly great achievements were on display here, the best of what we once were. Now, it's a big flea market. On the one hand, it's good there's a market so we can finally buy things, but on the other hand, I'm sorry. I feel nostalgic for what was once here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (speaking through interpreter) There's nothing left here. I don't like it. Our whole history of space was once here. Now, there's nothing left.
SIMON MARKS: Outside, a replica of the rocket that carried Yuri Gagarin into the history books is now merely a backdrop for a used car lot. And it's the same story at virtually every museum and monument dedicated to Russia's history in space. Cosmonauts Alley, where once fresh flowers were placed daily beneath statues of the pioneering Soviet men and women who journeyed into space, is now overgrown and neglected.
At the Cosmonauts Museum barely anyone bothers to stare at replicas of the first Sputnik Satellite or look at Yelka and Strelka, the two Soviet dogs who went to space and returned, or gaze at the capsule that brought Yuri Gagarin back to Earth. Things used to be very different. April, 1961, and Red Square saw one of the largest crowds in its history celebrate Gagarin's achievement. The Cold War space race galvanized the public and turned Soviet cosmonauts into national heroes. Valery Kubasov was one of them. Twenty-two years ago, he was on board Soyuz 19, that made history by docking with an Apollo spacecraft.
The first joint docking between the USA and the USSR, it set the trend for future superpower cooperation in orbit. Two decades later, Kubasov says many Russians now have different ideals.
VALERY KUBASOV, Former Cosmonaut: (speaking through interpreter) Today in Russia there are processes going on which have made life for people very difficult and complicated. People are more interested in profits, business, and income than our achievements in space. Does it sadden me? Yes, it saddens me that these people don't understand what progress is all about. They're ready to give everything away for money. It's a very sad outlook.
SIMON MARKS: The lack of interest in space comes at a time of crisis for Russia's space program. For the past several weeks Mission Control, just outside Moscow, has been dominated by a series of mishaps on board the space station Mir--first, a fire, then a collision with an unmanned docking vessel, then heart problems for Mir's commander, and last week a total power failure when one of the three men on board accidentally disconnected a computer cable, effectively pulling the plug on the entire station.
And, yet, even some senior Russian officials were unaware of all the developments. Last Thursday, the deputy director general of the Russian space agency, the country's equivalent of NASA, knew nothing of the power failure on Mir until we broke the news to him. After collecting his thoughts, he said there was no need for alarm.
DR. YURI MILOV, Russian Space Agency: (speaking through interpreter) If everyone were to panic and have hysterics and walk around in floods of tears, the astronauts would all be long dead by now. This situation has to be approached calmly. People should take all necessary measures to resolve this situation and not burst into tears.
SIMON MARKS: But back at Mission Control panic was in the air. "This is a kindergarten," the head of the facility screamed at the two Russians and one American aboard Mir. Viewed in isolation the problems with Mir would be troubling enough for Russia, but last year, a Russian probe due to explore Mars burnt up in the Earth's atmosphere.
By contrast, now, the rest of the world is watching the U.S. Pathfinder successfully examine the red planet. With the Russian people showing little interest in events in space and with the men aboard Mir spending most of their time trying to fix the space station, some of Russia's international partners are starting to express concerns about the direction of the country's space program.
While NASA says U.S. astronaut Michael Foale is still scheduled to be replaced by another American in September, the Europeans are already pulling their astronauts off Mir. Today, the French announced their crewmen scheduled to head to Mir next month won't be making the trip. Alain Fournier-Sicre heads the European Space Agency's office in Moscow.
ALAIN FOURNIER-SICRE, European Space Agency: The first objective is to make sure that everything is all right with or without the space module, but then after this period, we'll after to find out which percentage of the time actually the astronauts we are sending there would be able to spend for science. If we have another opportunity at this fixing operation, then we will consider it for sure.
SIMON MARKS: But you don't presume that Mir's glorious past means that it's inevitably going to have a glorious future?
ALAIN FOURNIER-SICRE: No, because, of course, it was meant--this station was meant to operate during five years. It's already 11 years.
SIMON MARKS: The Russians maintain that Mir still has plenty to offer. At Star City, the cosmonauts' training center, the next Russian crew scheduled to head into space next month is preparing for its mission. Russian space officials say they are not worried by their critics overseas who question the program's safety.
DR. YURI MILOV: (speaking through interpreter) I understand perfectly well that a large number of people feel ill will towards us, not just some Congressmen and Senators, but ordinary people as well. They're not suddenly less struck with Russia. There will always be people who come up with objections, and they would do so even if Mir had been unbelievably successful.
SIMON MARKS: The Russians point to strengths in their space program, including the proton rocket manufactured at a former nuclear missile plant on the outskirts of Moscow. The world's most reliable satellite launch vehicle, it's won millions of dollars in commercial orders. And the Russians say their work on the proposed permanently manned international space station is proof that they are still vital partners in the industry.
VALERY KUBASOV: (speaking through interpreter) Who else will the Americans work with, if not Russia? There's no one else to work with. Who else has the systems that allow people to work for a long time on space stations in orbit? Only Russia. Only Russia has the life support systems necessary. No one else in the world has this.
SIMON MARKS: In a corner of a fun fair in Moscow's Gorky Park lies another monument to the Russian industry's problems. Buran was supposed to be the Soviet Union's answer to the space shuttle, but it never made a single manned mission. Today it's a sideshow in an amusement park, a potent warning of the fate many Russians fear awaits the country's entire space program.