Russian space program: Then and now
June 29, 1998
(CNN) -- In 1961, the Russians launched Yuri Gagarin, the world's first man in space, and the world began to look at the Soviet Union differently. The Russian space program had glory and prestige -- and, unlike today, it had the money to finance space exploration.
"It showed that our country was capable of making a scientific discovery of global importance," says Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space. "We forget that we use the results of space exploration everyday. Cellular telephones, television programming, satellite navigation -- all this is a result of what we did, which became a way of life."
Back in those days, men, women and animals went into space using Russian rocket technology, which was considered the best in the world. It was also a money-maker. And it made Russian children want to grow up to become cosmonauts.
Today, the money is gone. The glamour is gone. The men in mission control, the engineers and the designers are pushing or are already well into middle age.
Worse yet, says Leonov, there is hardly anyone to replace them.
As for building the International Space Station, Leonov isn't worried. He believes the Russians will find the money to pay for their part. But beyond that, he's not so sure. Current plans call for the station to fly for 25 years, and he doesn't know who'll pay for that.
The Mir space station has spent more than 12 years in orbit -- twice its expected lifespan. But now it's too expensive to fly and too expensive to dismantle. All of its accomplishments are lost amid jokes about "the flying garbage can" or "the used car."
Russian politicians have problems on Earth to worry about and aren't looking to space as a place to invest funds. Leonov calls that short-sighted. As he puts it, more money is wasted on the ground than is necessary to keep the space program alive.
Correspondent Betsy Aaron contributed to this report.
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