The People’s Capsule
How a clunky old Soviet rocket outlasted the space shuttle.
When Michael Barratt, a NASA flight surgeon, arrived at the Russian cosmonaut training facility at Star City in 1993, the space program that once lofted Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin into orbit was at its lowest ebb since the U.S. moon landing. The storefronts in the enclave nestled in the boreal forest 20 miles outside Moscow were mostly closed, their shelves empty of food. The soldiers guarding the compound, Barratt recalls, were for a time receiving their paychecks in the form of surplus canned salmon. “A lot of our Russian co-workers hadn’t been paid in months,” he recalls.
It seemed an ignominious end for what had once been the most advanced space agency in the world. But if Russia lost the space race during the Cold War, today the country is about to take the lead, however temporarily, in the space marathon. When the last U.S. space shuttle touches down in Florida this year, it will leave behind in orbit the International Space Station, an 11-year, almost-completed construction project that the United States — which has paid $48.5 billion of the expected $100 billion tab so far — and other countries hope to keep using for at least another decade. But how to get there? U.S. President Barack Obama wants to pour $6 billion over the next five years into commercial transportation to and from orbit, bankrolling companies he claims will be “competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable.” But whether they can pull it off remains an open question, and in any case their rockets are years away from being astronaut-ready. The Chinese have launched a few manned test flights, and India hopes to do so by 2016, but for now both are strictly minor league.
That leaves just one option: an unglamorous rocket and capsule called the Soyuz — “Union” — that the Russians have been using to blast cosmonauts into space for nearly half a century. Starting next year, U.S. astronauts trying to reach the space station will have to book a flight to Star City first.
The American abdication of space has not sat well with Cold War nostalgists in the U.S. Congress — the most vocal of whom, not coincidentally, hail from the Gulf Coast states where NASA and its contractors are major employers. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has sniffed at the notion of “hitching a ride with the Russians” and declared that NASA’s new strategy “begins the death march for the future of U.S. human space flight.” In a congressional hearing last winter, a representative from Texas bemoaned the possibility that English might no longer be the first language in space. But at this point, there’s not much they can do about it. “At NASA,” Barratt says, “this is a good time to know how to speak Russian.”
Over the past three decades, U.S. manned spaceflight has become an ever-pricier undertaking, orchestrated by an overbuilt government bureaucracy and overpaid government contractors. Keeping the shuttle flying costs $3 billion a year, more than a sixth of NASA’s budget — so much that five years ago, when NASA embarked on plans to build rockets to return to the moon and eventually reach Mars, it had to kill the shuttle program first. But then the new rocket program fell badly behind schedule and over budget, and the astronauts were left without any ride.
Russia, by contrast, abandoned most of its great exploratory ambitions after the American success with Apollo and focused on mastering the art of cheap, routinized travel to and from orbit. This was fortunate because after communism’s fall, the country was too strapped for cash to do anything else. In the early 1990s, Russia’s struggling space agency eked out an existence selling Soviet-era artifacts at Sotheby’s. (An American video-game magnate paid $68,500 for one of the two robotic rovers the Soviets had left on the moon, even though no one knew exactly where it was.) The agency used its aging rocket fleet to launch commercial satellites and even zero-gravity product placements; by the mid-1990s the space station Mir, the last great technological wonder of communism, was pulling double duty as an orbiting Pepsi billboard.
The austerity of the early post-Soviet years forced Russian engineers to embrace a MacGyver sensibility, using duct tape and chewing gum to hold together venerable spacecraft designs that the Americans would have retired decades earlier. The centerpiece of their efforts remained the Soyuz, a sort of aeronautical Kalashnikov: a famously reliable, no-frills machine that Russian factories had been stamping out in one form or another — it has gone through eight variations — since before the moon landing. No one would mistake the three-seat capsule, the shape of a gumball machine and not much bigger, for the glamorous space shuttle. On its return from orbit, the shuttle glides to a landing near a resort town in southern Florida; the Soyuz cannonballs out of the sky — at a face-peeling eight times the force of gravity, if things go badly — and thuds to rest on the Kazakh steppe. Its onboard survival kit has included a custom-designed three-barrel handgun ever since an early crew, emerging from the craft in the Ural Mountains, was reportedly menaced by wolves.
But for the routine space-station trips that constitute almost all manned spaceflight today, the Soyuz is not only $19 million cheaper per astronaut to launch than the shuttle, but it’s also by most measures safer — it hasn’t had a fatal accident in 29 years. “In the West, we build Cadillacs,” says Leroy Chiao, a retired NASA astronaut and space station commander who has flown on both the shuttle and the Soyuz. The latter, he says, “is more like an old pickup truck: It doesn’t have air-conditioning, only has AM radio, but it gets you where you’re going.” The European Space Agency plans to begin launching its own Soyuzes late this year, and even the U.S. military’s Atlas V rocket uses Russian-built engines. Nearly every company that has tried to break into the commercial satellite launch business has done it using Soviet-designed rockets bought cheap in Russia or Ukraine. U.S. aerospace contractors, fattened on years of noncompetitive government work, don’t stand a chance.
Although the Russian space monopoly was already inevitable by the time Obama took office, American space hawks have accused the president of worsening the situation with his NASA agenda, which would cancel Bush-era plans for a new rocket. In an April news conference, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, warned that NASA’s new direction “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.” Dire predictions abound: In the event of an international dispute, Russia could hold American astronauts hostage in space. American engineers will forget how to build and fly spacecraft; American schoolkids won’t be inspired to study science anymore.
The Russians have their own worries — among others, that they’re being played for suckers. NASA will soon be saving billions it would otherwise spend on the expensive and — let’s face it — not terribly useful business of travel to low Earth orbit. The agency is now setting its sights on more ambitious horizons: manned missions to distant asteroids and Martian moons that Russia is nowhere near capable of reaching. “The Americans will build their new spacecraft,” cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov warned in a 2007 interview, “and we will be left behind with our old ship which no one will need.”
The issue ultimately boils down to whether the future of spaceflight will be confined to the sort of Earth-orbiting sorties that have occupied the world’s space agencies since Apollo, or whether the next generation of astronauts will once again push back the frontiers of space. In any case, it’s hard to envision either space program changing its ways. Americans, after all, have never quite matched the AK-47. And Russians have yet to build a decent Cadillac.
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