Amid serious doubts over the future of what was the lavishly funded Soviet space program, Russia launched the first cosmonauts of its own on Tuesday and prepared for the return of a 33-year-old engineer parked in orbit since the Soviet Union's collapse.
At 3:53 p.m. local time (2:53 a.m. PST), the Soyuz rocket carrying Cmdr. Alexander S. Viktorenko, flight engineer Alexander Y. Kaleri and a paying German guest--Maj. Klaus-Dietrich Flade, a Bundeswehr test pilot--lifted off atop a thundering ball of flame.
The three-man crew, riding in their Soyuz 14 capsule, will dock Thursday with the orbiting Mir space station. The Russians then are scheduled to relieve two fellow cosmonauts, Cmdr. Alexander A. Volkov and flight engineer Sergei K. Krikalev.
The saga of Volkov and Krikalev, who still have the red Soviet flag stitched to their jerseys, is unique in the history of space flight because the country that placed them in orbit has since ceased to exist.
Krikalev, who is married and has a 2-year-old son, has had to stay aloft more than five months longer than planned. The black-haired cosmonaut, who had made one space flight before, lifted off last May and was supposed to land in the autumn. But to save money and to satisfy Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who demanded that a Kazakh fly as a cosmonaut, Moscow authorities combined the missions that were supposed to replace Krikalev with a joint Soviet-Austrian flight last October.
Neither the Austrian, Franz Viehboeck, nor the Kazakh, a MIG test pilot, was qualified to replace Krikalev. The Soviet flight engineer thus had to stay in space. He marks 10 months in orbit today and is to return to Earth on March 25 with Flade and Volkov.
Krikalev will return to a dramatically changed world, where even his hometown--Leningrad--now has a different name, St. Petersburg. "I understand that for Sergei it could be a difficult return. He probably cannot conceive what life is like here now," Kaleri, the engineer's replacement, mused during a preflight news conference, speaking from behind a glass screen designed to prevent any last-minute infections.
Flade, 39, a jet pilot and black belt in karate, rejected widespread press speculation that Krikalev is severely depressed at having been marooned. But he acknowledged that both cosmonauts on the Mir, with whom he has had frequent radio contact, are overjoyed at "the possibility of coming back to Earth."
Space, an extravagantly financed prestige project under Soviet rule, is now coming under extreme pressures from politicians who demand that it yield an immediate economic benefit, and leaders of Kazakhstan and the other newly independent republics, who want a piece of both the administrative control and the revenue.
Tuesday's manned mission, the first since the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States in December, was executed under total Russian control, although as a concession to local sentiments, the flag of Kazakhstan was painted along with Russia's and Germany's on the three-stage 160-foot high rocket. "This is basically a Russian mission launched from Kazakhstan," confirmed Maj. Gen. Pyotr I. Klimuk, the chief of cosmonaut training.
Klimuk and other high-ranking army officers say they hope that this Friday's Commonwealth summit in Kiev will settle the status of the Baikonur's spaceport, built by the Soviets in the 1950s, as well as laying the groundwork for Commonwealth cooperation in space.
The Soyuz flight, which lifted off from the same pad Yuri A. Gagarin used in 1961 to become the first man in space, should illustrate some of the dramatic changes in a program long promoted as a showcase for Soviet communism.
For example, at the flight control center near Moscow, some of whose technicians and officials earn less than janitors, the personnel threatened to strike during the mission. But they agreed for now only to display their demands on streamers in the control room.
Last month, there was also violent unrest at Baikonur, when thousands of Kazakh construction troops, paid almost nothing for doing manual labor at the world's largest space port, rioted and had to be sent home.
Proponents of continued investment and development of the Soviet space program will point to the Russian-German flight as an example of the earthly dividends the cosmos can pay. The Germans shelled out 20 million deutschemarks (about $12 million) to put Flade and up to 100 tons of scientific equipment aboard Mir. That sum, Russian space experts say, is enough to pay for operations of the orbital station for an entire half-year.
The French, who are to undertake a mission to the Mir with the Russians in July, will pay the equivalent amount. After that, Russian space experts say, Mir's future is hazy, given the severe economic problems now experienced by Russia and the other former Soviet republics.