Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 134

The Russian space establishment’s long, desperate and at times even comic efforts to keep the Mir station aloft have produced little in the way of new funding which might make that dream a reality. Moreover, with the crash of a Russian Proton rocket during a launch from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmodrome last week, the effort to extend Mir’s life may have resulted in more serious consequences. Authorities in Russia and the United States have warned in recent days that Kazakhstan’s decision to suspend Russian launches from Baikonur–a decision taken because of the Proton rocket crash and Moscow’s unsatisfactory reaction to it (see the Monitor, July 12)–could increase the chances of Mir itself crashing dangerously to earth sometime next year. Less serious but still of considerable consequence, the latest difficulties faced by Russia’s space program could also cause further delays in the construction of the sixteen-nation, US$60 billion International Space Station. That project is already well behind schedule because of Russia’s failure to meet its project deadlines.

Russia’s aging Mir space station, the core portion of which was launched into orbit in 1986, has long been an object of contention between Russia and the United States. As acute funding shortages have buffeted the once proud Russian space program, Russian space officials have been faced with the choice of either funding Mir’s continued existence, or of devoting their increasingly meager financial resources entirely to the International Space Station effort. The United States, not surprisingly, has pushed for the latter, and Russian space officials have repeatedly given assurances that the space station is their top priority. For all of that, the Mir station remains a symbol of Moscow’s former greatness in space, and many in Russia’s space establishment want to see it maintained. They also accuse the United States of scaring off potential private investors in Mir, and believe, with some obvious justification, that under current conditions Russia will ultimately be little more than a bit player in the International Space Station effort. These factors have tended to drive the effort to keep the station in orbit.

In January of this year the Russian government under then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov attempted to square the circle by approving a plan to extend the life of the station by three years–while simultaneously terminating government funding for the station. In effect, the Energia rocket corporation, which runs Mir, was told to find private funding to meet the estimated US$250 million yearly expense of keeping the station in orbit (Reuters, Russian agencies, January 22).

The efforts to secure funding by Energia and other involved Russian agencies have been less than impressive. In late January, soon after the decision to extend Mir’s life, there were reports that Energia had found an unnamed Australian businessman who was willing to put up some US$750 million to keep the station aloft for three years (Moscow Kommersant, January 27). The offer apparently came to naught, and the search for financial help continued. In May, there were reports that an English businessman by the name of Peter Llewellyn has agreed to pay–or, at the least, to raise–US$100 million for a week-long stay on Mir in August. Llewellyn actually traveled to Russia and, amid some fanfare in the press, began training for the adventure. The British businessman turned out to have had a checkered past, however, and the deal soon fell apart. A Russian space official later said that Llewellyn had turned out to be “an unreliable partner” (Russian agencies, May 14; AP, May 21; AP, UPI, May 26).

On June 9, another fundraising drive for Mir was launched, this one by a group of Russian cosmonauts. The effort was led by Vitaly Sevastyanov and German Titov, former Soviet cosmonauts currently serving as lawmakers in the Russian State Duma. The two men reported that they had received commitments for funding from several Russian factories, as well as from unnamed Libyan and Iraqi businessmen. By early July, however, Sevastyanov told reporters that the cosmonauts’ effort had netted only about US$20,000–not enough, obviously, to make a dent in Mir’s operating expenses (AP, June 9; Reuters, July 7).

The results are apparently not in on one final fundraising effort. On June 27 there were reports that Russian film director Yuri Kara intended to shoot part of a movie–to be called “The Mark of Cassandra”–on Mir. Few details were available, and Russian space officials were said to be viewing the proposal warily. The star of the film–Vladimir Steklov–reportedly began training for the flight to Mir, however. Kara was quoted as saying that even just a few minutes of footage taken in space would be a “grandiose, distinguishing event for Russians, who need to feel that again after Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space.” A Russian Space Agency spokesman was more pragmatic. He was quoted as saying that “everything depends on money and this [film] is all about huge sums of money” (Reuters, June 27).