Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 1

Is Russia Up to Cooperation in Space?

By Stanislav Lunev

About a year from now, an event will take place which is truly important from the point of view of Russian-American cooperation, and could have real significance for future generations. In November 1997, Russia’s Space Forces will launch a "Proton-K" rocket. This time, the rocket, created many years ago as a "conventional" ICBM designed to deliver strategic thermonuclear weapons to their target, will be putting the first module of the international space station "Alpha" into orbit, a project in which Russia, the US, the European Space Agency, Japan, and Canada have all had a part.

"Alpha" will be built in three stages: first, design, development, and construction of the station’s elements in the countries participating in the project; second, assembly of the station in space (November 1997-June 2002); third, its practical use in orbit (2002 until, say, 2012). This schedule has to be seen as conditional, since it depends on work which is going on now in Russia and the US. As regards the other countries participating in the project, the launch of the Japanese module (JEM) is scheduled to take place only by the beginning of 2000, and the European APM, a year after that.

The first module of "Alpha" which the Russian military will launch into space will be the American "Functional Cargo Block," (FCB) which will become the main part of the next century’s international space station. This module, for which "Alpha’s" American prime contractor, Boeing, is paying $215 million, is being created in Russia by specialists of the Khrunichev State Scientific-Production Center in Moscow. According to Boeing representative Douglas Stone, the main elements of the 43-foot, 20 ton FCB were put together last spring. (1)

It was no accident that the American constructors chose the Khrunichev Center, which has the most experience in the world at building military pilotable space stations. The center’s specialists created the "Almaz," a unique pilotable military space station, back in the 1960s (several Almaz stations had been put into orbit, under the guise of normal "Salyut" missions, but the Soviet military ended up not needing them, since the Pentagon decided not to produce the analogous MOL space station), and its base block and other adjoining modules are still in space in the form of the "Mir" space station. Thus, the possible contract between the Khrunichev Center and ESA specialists, who have no such experience and had difficulties developing their own laboratory module, is also no surprise.

It is intended that when the assembly of the "Alpha" station is complete, the participating countries will have the following shares in the project: Russia and the U.S. — 42 percent each; Japan — 9 percent; the ESA — 6 percent, and Canada — 1 percent. This proportion should be maintained throughout the period the space station is used, i.e., until 2012. According to the project, by mid-2002, the orbital station will have a mass of 400 tons (the present Russian "Mir" complex has a mass of only 100 tons), with an internal volume of 1300 cubic meters, of which 523 cubic meters will be the Russian segment, and 455 cubic meters will be made up of the American modules. The shares of Japan and the ESA will be 185 and 139 cubic meters respectively.

It must be noted that discussion of issues concerning the construction of the "Alpha" station occupies an important place in the sessions of the Russian-American Commission on Economic and Technical Cooperation, headed by Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Vice President Al Gore. This was also the case at the seventh session of the Commission, held in Moscow the middle of last July, whose participants, in addition to discussing a number of business cooperation and environmental issues, found time for discussing problems concerning the building of the space station as well. (2)

There are also problems concerning the different approach that the two sides take towards the "Alpha" project. The American side as a whole, and above all, specialists and scholars, justly see it as an important step in future space research. In the U.S., the project has attracted a lot of attention both from the public and from the leading aerospace laboratories and centers, including such giants as Boeing.

In spite of the fact that the "Alpha" project is already in the implementation stage, American specialists are continuing their research in this area and the National Research Council recently published a highly-specialized work which gave a number of recommendations on improving the international space station and reducing its cost significantly. (3)

But the attitude of the Russian side towards this project is completely different. In spite of the optimism of the Russian government, which took on international obligations to build the space station three years ago, and reaffirms them at each session of the Commission on Economic and Technical Cooperation, Russian space experts have expressed significant doubts as to the need for such a project in its planned form.

In the opinion of these specialists, Russia will lose more than it gains from this project, most of all, financially. As the Moscow newspaper Segodnya noted, the project’s main problem is its financing. (4) According to NASA’s estimates, the cost of the space station and its assembly will be approximately $17.4 billion.

The Russian segment of the station, the newspaper reported, should cost $3.35 billion to prepare and assemble, $255 million, or 8 percent, of which, will be paid by the US, for the most part, for building its Functional Cargo Block (which costs $215 million). The Americans will also buy Russian docking mechanisms for their own segment ($11.1 million), will pay the cost of the joint lock chamber ($4.4 million) and will pay a small amount towards the construction of the service module ($8.3 million out of the required $778.3 million). Moreover, Russia is also taking on the main costs of using the station–approximately $7.5 billion. In total, the Russian side is committed to spending up to $10.6 billion which she is not expected to be able to come up with in the near future.

In this sense, the creation of the "Alpha" space station is of direct benefit to the American side, since the main financial burden of this project is being borne by the Russians. Moreover, according to Moskovskie Novosti, the main parts of the station — the energy block, the service and docking modules, the transport ships — are Russia’s responsibility. (5) The American side is responsible for the laboratory module, the station’s guidance systems, and forming the crews. In other words, the Russians have to do all the work. One can object that he who pays the piper gets to call the tune. But that’s only if he really pays. And it turns out that the US is offering the Russian side $400 million over three years, thereby saving $10 billion, at Russia’s expense.

It is already obvious, Moskovskie Novosti noted, that the money offered is simply not enough, and, according to Russian specialists’ calculations, amounts to only 5-8 percent of the costs. Mr. Chernomyrdin has to look for the rest, in order not to violate international agreements. But he isn’t trying very hard. According to Anatoly Kiselev — the director of the Khrunichev Center, who is building the Russian part of "Alpha," talking with the Ministry of Finance or the Ministry of Economics about it is fruitless. An enormous amount of paperwork has been sent to Mr. Chernomyrdin, but to no avail.

For the time being, according to the newspaper, the Khrunichev Center is looking for sources of funding outside the budget. The Center cannot avail itself of the services of domestic banks, due to their predatory interest rates. More restrained foreign creditors, have helped out a little, as, of course, have the commercial launches of "Proton." This market, in spite of the active resistance of Western competitors, continues to expand, since "Proton" is both a reliable and a relatively cheap carrier. This year, commercial orders made up 93 percent of all of the Center’s activity. It is no wonder that under these conditions, the activity of what was once a powerful, high-class design bureau at the Khrunichev Center, has been swallowed up, and the prefix "scientific" is becoming unnecessary. Thus, the following scheme is being implemented: WE ARE LAUNCHING AMERICAN COMMUNICATIONS SATELLITES WITH OUR "PROTONS," AND WITH THE MONEY WE MAKE, WE WILL BUILD THE "ALPHA," WHICH THE AMERICANS WILL COMMAND.

Thus, it is quite natural that questions would arise in the Russian press as to whether there is any sense in Russian specialists putting in so much effort, and spending so much money, on participation in the international orbital space station project. As was noted in Moskovskie Novosti, the various "Salyuts" and military and civilian space stations built during the "years of stagnation," and the "Mir" which replaced them in 1986, did rather little for the economy of the nation which launched them. But dozens of expeditions and researchers from various countries, including the US, have already worked on "Mir," which was assembled in space out of individual modules.

At the same time, nothing like "Mir" has been created in the US, and the American Congress has refused NASA the funds for such a program on several occasions, saying that it was not worth the enormous expenditure required. The well-known American space station project "Freedom" thus remained on paper. The same cannot be said of American communications satellites. Seventy percent of the world’s communications satellites are made in the USA.

It is worth noting that even in Soviet times, there were attempts, from time to time, to criticize the space legacy of the Brezhnev years. In particular, Yuri Andropov, who came to power at the beginning of the 1980s, ordered an investigation into whether the cosmonauts did anything useful during their long periods in orbit, but his short reign prevented him from shedding any light on this question. At the end of the 1980s, Yegor Ligachev became interested in this as well, but soon, he became preoccupied with more important matters. The whole problem was once clear to the present Russian president, who, in 1989, actively protested against wasteful expenditures, but in his later years, he continued the glorious tradition of giving medals to space crews returning from orbit, although they now have to share the stage with people who have especially "distinguished themselves" in the civil war in Chechnya.

Over the quarter-century that orbital stations have existed, Soviet, and later, Russian society has been offered nothing which would in any way justify the colossal expenditures involved except general declarations about experiments "in the interests of science and the economy." Of course, all these things are very interesting, irrespective of what one thinks about technological experiments under conditions of microgravitation, super-pure preparations, remote sensing of the earth from space, etc.

But in addition to the absurdity of the price which the Soviet Union had to pay, and which Russia still has to pay, there is still the problem of using the information received in the absence of the necessary infrastructure. And this is why kilometers of film shot by cosmonauts lie untouched, while the space program is busy ferrying foreigners to and from outer space, which at least brings in a little income.

As the newspaper Moskovskie novosti points out, Russia has no money to build space stations, and no prospect of getting any soon. (7) Mir has broken all the records for length of use, and the various technical problems which arise from time to time have so far been resolved successfully. Of course, nothing lasts forever, and even the unique Mir will someday wear out. But this would probably have been the end of the "orbital odyssey" if American specialists had not come to the aid of their Russian colleagues.

After losing battle after battle to the US Congress on the American space station, the newspaper noted, NASA suddenly saw a chance open up to build, not an American space station, but an international one (under its own aegis, of course), with substantial Russian participation. And it found some Russian specialists who were willing to sign anything, even a pact with the Devil himself, to sell themselves cheaply, in order to save their work and the possibility of its continuing. That is how the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement to build the "Alpha" space station was born.

But, the Russian press asks, does Russia really need such a space station? After all, Russia has already spent enormous amounts of money on "Mir", which has been in orbit since 1986. It cites the opinions of Russian specialists in the field, who proposed changing the project to build "Alpha" on the basis of the already-existing "Mir." Over the ten years of its existence, "Mir" has been fitted with modules for various purposes, beginning in 1987 ("Kvant"), and following with "Kvant-2" (1989), "Kristall" (1990), "Spektr" (1995), and "Priroda" (1996).

Therefore, Russian specialists think that it makes sense to use the modules of the "Mir" complex which are not too old, dock them into "Alpha," and simply "throw out" the base block of the international space station. This alternative is more realistic, since Russia’s situation is unique in that no other country has its own space station in orbit. Moreover, Russia is neither technically nor financially equipped to cope with two space stations simultaneously.

Metaphorically calling space stations "The Road to Nowhere," the Russian press quotes Russian specialists, who think that the most promising path for the development of Russian-American space cooperation would be joint participation in the commercial launching of satellites of various types into orbit. (9) These specialists cite the experience of the Khrunichev Center, whose income from commercial launches is comparable to the amount of budget money appropriated by the government for space research.

The Khrunichev Center put together a joint venture with Lockheed Martin to oversee the launches of its "Proton-K" rocket. (10) The Center builds the rockets, and its American partner takes care of the international marketing. On April 9 of this year, the Russian Space Forces carried out the first such launch, when the "Proton" put into orbit the Astra-1F geostationary television satellite, created by Hughes for the Societe Europeienne Des Satellites (SES-Luxembourg). The cost of this launch, excluding insurance, was $60 million.

The Center invested the money earned by the launch into the development of its own production, the modernization of the "Proton," and the rebuilding of the launch and technical complexes at the Baikonur cosmodrome. In addition, the paper says that the Center has made a contribution to the development of promising Western projects. For example, participating in the creation of the "Iridium" mobile communications satellite system, the Khrunichev Center launched some of the system’s satellites.

The newspaper also pointed out that part of the problems with Russia’s space program are linked, not with funding, but with its structure and management. It was noted that the attempt to make the transition to the Western scheme was begun in 1992, with the creation of the Russian Space Agency (RKA), which was to become the government agency which would plan civilian space activity and would receive budget money for this purpose. But the creation of the RKA, in the present Russian situation, came to nothing, and the organization has become simply a parody of the USSR’s Ministry of General Machine Building. Frozen in the embryonic stage of its development, the RKA manages 38 aerospace enterprises, and serves as both the contracting agency and the contractor.

But the newspaper informs us that a number of large space enterprises, such as the Khrunichev Center, "Energiya" and "Polyot," are not subordinate to the RKA, and remain in the Goskomoboronprom [State Committee on the Defense Industry] system (which was renamed the Ministry of Defense Industry in June 1996). Possibly this fact explains the relatively profitable activity of the Khrunichev center and several other aerospace enterprises.

Thus it is difficult to come to any conclusion as to whether or not the international space station will succeed in its present form. Its scientific and practical value for the next century are beyond doubt, as is its significance for future Russian-American space cooperation. But the success of this project will be defined, for the most part, by the Russian side’s attitude toward it, and the new Russian government’s ability to handle the financial and other problems in creating the "Alpha" station, including its ability to make the transition from "promising the moon" to its foreign partners to the solution of more practical tasks, including in this area.


1. The Washington Times, April 14, 1996

2. The Washington Times, July 14, 1996

3. Engineering Research and Technology Development of the Space Station. (National Academy Press, Washington, DC 1996)

4. Segodnya, November 28, 1995

5. Moskovskie novosti, No. 14, 1996

6. Moskovskie novosti, April 7-14, 1996

7. Moskovskie novosti, No. 14, 1996

8. Segodnya, November 28, 1995

9. Moskovskie novosti, April 7-14, 1996

10. Segodnya, April 16, 1996

Translated by Mark Eckert