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After glory era, cash woes hobble Russian space program

Space June 27, 1997
Web posted at: 10:50 a.m. EDT (1450 GMT)

From Correspondent Mark Dulmage

(CNN) -- When the Soviet Union launched a tiny globe called Sputnik into orbit around Earth 40 years ago, few could have guessed that it would be only the first in a long list of Soviet space firsts.

That launch of the first artificial satellite touched off what came to be known as the "space race" between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The achievements form an impressive testament to the abilities of the Communist scientific community during the Cold War. But from the beginning, the Moscow-directed space program was secretive. Intentions, schedules, setbacks and disasters were never disclosed.

How much of the Soviet program was tailored for military purposes rather than peaceful uses was not discussed. Triumphs, on the other hand, were ballyhooed. On April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's name was on everyone's lips when he became the first human to orbit Earth.

The event caught the breath of people everywhere, and across the Soviet Union there was enormous pride in what Soviet scientists and the cosmonaut had accomplished.

In quick order, the Soviets ran up a remarkable list of firsts. Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space and the only woman to solo in space on June 16, 1963. The first spacewalk was made by cosmonaut Alexi Leonov on March 18, 1965.

Less than a year later, then unmanned Luna 9, launched by the Soviet Union, made the first soft landing on the moon and returned pictures from another world for the first time. Another Russian craft launched in April 1966, Luna 10, was the first craft to orbit the moon.

And the Soviet Union sent the first manned space station into orbit around the Earth -- the Salyut 1, in 1971.

The achievements did not come without a price. A Soviet cosmonaut was the first person to die in space when in 1967, a Russian spacecraft's parachute tangled on re-entry and the craft crashed to the ground. And the three-man crew of Soyuz 11 died in 1971 during their return flight from a mission in which they visited the Salyut -- the first crew to make such a space station visit.

Two years before the Soyuz 11 disaster, the Soviet space program had already been caught and passed by the United States in the rush to send a man to the moon.

During the same time frame, an unmanned lunar landing by Moscow failed, as did unmanned probes to explore Mars and Venus. Despite periodic successes, it was clear the Soviets were falling behind.

In the late 1980s, glasnost showed the world that the Soviet Union was broke, and the space program suffered. The space stations, first Salyut and then Mir, were a decided triumph for Russia, allowing it to sustain cosmonauts for months while conducting a wide range of scientific experiments.

But the money crunch was there for everyone to see. In a $12 million deal with Japan, a Japanese journalist was allowed to go into space with Russian cosmonauts.

The troubled Mir space platform now orbiting Earth was designed to be in operation for five years, but is now in its 11th. Space experts say there are two things to fear most aboard a space station: fire and decompression. Both have now happened on Mir.

There are concerns that with Russia unable to send out a new, updated space station, its money problems could now put astronauts from other countries at risk as they train on Mir to build an international space station.

 
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