Next Step : Russia Launches Hope for Revived Space Program : Its commercial ventures are emerging as serious competition for the West.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This bleak and faceless steppe is almost as unsuitable for human habitation as the surface of the moon.

Baked to dust in summer, frigid in winter, wind-bitten every season, cursed with brackish water and bereft of trees, the Baikonur space complex epitomizes the triumph of Soviet secrecy over proletarian comfort.

But when the giant firecrackers go off, the dreariness and dilapidation of the cash-strapped cosmodrome are forgotten.

Last week, Russian technology impressed a skeptical world as a Soyuz rocket blasted off from Baikonur with its first American astronaut on board and ferried him and two Russian crew mates to the Russian-built space station Mir.

The white-hot flame of another rocket success contrasted sharply with the increasingly dim reports of industrial collapse in Russia. The space program, though tattered by shrunken budgets, remains a testament to sturdy Russian technology. The Soyuz is a prime example.

Unlike the U.S. space shuttle, a more sophisticated and delicate machine that does not take off or land in bad weather, the relatively antiquated but trusty Soyuz rockets sometimes blast off during blizzards. They cannot afford to tarry; the launch window for last week's flight was just five seconds. If the Soyuz is delayed, another launch attempt cannot be made for another 24 hours.

"Zazhiganie!" (Ignition!) the Russian flight controllers announced with split-second precision over loudspeakers to the viewing stands, where dignitaries and journalists were slowly turning into icicles waiting for American physician/astronaut Norman E. Thagard to be launched from the same pad that sent the world's first satellite (Sputnik, October, 1957) and first human (Yuri A. Gagarin, April, 1961) into space.

The thunder of the exploding rocket fuel shook the steppe and made viewers' chests vibrate. The massive rocket began to levitate atop the flames.

Sixty seconds after ignition, it was a tiny glowing dot in the empty desert sky. In 100 seconds, it was out of sight. At the 600 second mark, flight controllers announced that the rocket had reached orbit, the signal for onlookers to cheer, give each other thumping bearhugs and pop the corks of the very well-chilled champagne.

Two days after the faultless launch, the Soyuz docked at Mir so smoothly that Thagard said later he was not even aware that the two spacecraft had mated.

The mission was a technological triumph at a time when Russia desperately needs one.

Russia's military-industrial complex has been shattered, sending legions of unemployed engineers and underfunded scientists in search of other work. Its airline safety record is so dismal that passengers have begun calling Aeroflot "Scareoflot." And its nuclear materiel has been hemorrhaging through once-solid Soviet security into the hands of international smugglers.

Even its arms exports, long a national breadwinner, are looking less attractive because of the poor performance of Russian-built weapons in Chechnya.

The Russian space program is one of the few bright spots on that devastated landscape of what was a scientific superpower.

As the space budget has shrunk drastically--to an estimated $62 million last year, compared to an annual NASA budget of about $14 billion--Russia's space engineers have turned to international cooperation in scientific research and an aggressive program of commercial space exploitation as the only hope for survival.

The strategy seems to be working. Despite the Draconian budget cuts, Russia managed to launch 41 spacecraft last year, 26 of them from Baikonur. In 1995, the total is expected to rise to 45. And in the commercial space market, Russia is emerging as a serious competitor to the West.

Using its workhorse Proton booster rocket, which boasts a 96% success rate over 230 launches, Russia can send commercial satellites into geosynchronous orbit for one-half to one-fifth of what customers would pay elsewhere.

Earlier this month, a Proton carrying three Glonass navigation satellites blasted off from Baikonur. A joint venture founded in 1993 between Lockheed and the M.V. Khrunichev space research and production center has already snagged contracts worth $1 billion for 16 Proton launches over the next four years.

Since the Proton can be launched only from Baikonur, the Khrunichev center has promised to invest at least $25 million to modernize the badly neglected cosmodrome.

The money could not arrive at the decrepit space base too soon.

Inside the Baikonur space museum is a giant painted slogan: "Russia was, is, and will be a great space power!" But the museum that bears tribute to the Soviet Union's pioneering space achievements is unheated, and the toilets work only sporadically. Everywhere in Baikonur hot water is an unattainable luxury.

This remote base just east of the Aral Sea, about 1,300 miles southeast of Moscow, once was seen as such a threat to the West that Francis Gary Powers' long-range U-2 spy plane was sent to photograph. Now it is a forlorn tableau of peeling paint, rusting gates, buildings abandoned half-completed, and bird droppings in the chilly hangars where Russia's most advanced spacecraft lie mothballed.

"We do not have enough money for anything," said Vitaly N. Pogorlyuk. He runs the integration and assembly facility that stores the inactive Buran, Russia's answer to the American space shuttle. "It was minus 12 degrees (10 degrees Fahrenheit) here last winter and we had to stop work."

The Buran was designed to ferry people and cargo back and forth from space station Mir. But it flew only once, on an unmanned 1988 test flight, before financial troubles grounded it for good. The 108-foot behemoth is designed to be launched into space strapped to the world's biggest rocket, the Energiya, which is also in deep storage.

Though he doubts the Buran will ever fly again, and a second shuttle remains half-completed, Pogorlyuk and his staff say they are keeping the two spacecraft shipshape.

"It's our national dream, it's our achievement," Pogorlyuk said. "You can't throw it into the garbage."

In an amazing display of post-Cold War openness, Pogorlyuk allowed Western reporters to scramble on top of the scaffolding, peer into the Buran's gaping hatch, and photograph its innards. Yet at other times during the three-day visit, journalists were mysteriously told they could not even get off their bus.

"Americans are interested in seeing a weakened Russia," said Nina I. Omysova, chief engineer for the Energiya, in a view widely shared here.

Grief and humiliation have made Omysova and her comrades understandably defensive. Omysova has spent 25 of her 47 years working on a rocket that is capable of putting 100 tons of cargo into outer space and traveling to Mars. But NASA doesn't need such a huge rocket, and nobody else can afford it. By 2001, the Energiya will be too antiquated to travel, and it now looks likely to die quietly in its hangar.

"I don't have any hope," Omysova said. "You see what's happened to our country. . . . We will pull ourselves together. Maybe we won't live to see it, but our children will. This cannot continue."

Baikonur was always a hardship post, but at least it was once a prestigious address. It was one of the only places in Russia where the number of portraits of Gagarin exceeded the hagiography of V.I. Lenin, and its elite denizens were the beneficiaries of innumerable Soviet-era perquisites.

Now Baikonur is located in Kazakhstan, and many of its most skilled workers are fleeing back to Mother Russia. More will be forced to leave over the coming year, officials say, when the Baikonur work force is to be slashed from 40,000 to 25,000.

These days, Omysova wishes she had become an economist instead of a space engineer.

"Economists seem to be very much in demand," she said, adding, "Everyone has forgotten us."

Still, Baikonur employees said that after a cold and despairing 1994, conditions are improving this year. There is heat; Russian authorities, anxious to live up to their international obligations, have promised a tenfold funding increase for 1995; and there is the enduring draw of space itself.

For the visiting international press corps, however, the most mysterious of Russian space developments happens on the way to the launch pad. Over the years, the cosmonaut corps has developed a whole host of traditions, which the diplomatic Thagard promised to faithfully observe.

At Russia's second launching pad, at Plesetsk, in the arctic, someone once scrawled the word "Tanya"--presumably his beloved's name--in the ice that forms a coating on the rocket once the supercooled fuel is added. The only time his successors failed to follow the tradition, the rocket exploded. Superstitious ground personnel have been paying tribute to Tanya ever since.

When Gagarin headed out to become the first human in space, he reputedly stopped to relieve himself on a tire of the truck that was carrying him to the launch pad. Fellow cosmonauts, including women, are said to have done the same ever since, but since they put on their space suits before leaving for the launch pad, the mechanics of this feat remain an enduring mystery.

Though Thagard's launch was flawless, there was one casualty: The powerful chairman of Russia's upper house of Parliament, Vladimir F. Shumeiko, caught a bad cold while standing outside to view the launch in Baikonur, and missed the docking celebrations because he was hospitalized with a high fever.

Safely aboard the Mir, Thagard, who is from Florida, has hung out his Florida State University pennant to join the ubiquitous Gagarin photo that is prominently taped to one wall. The 51-year-old former Marine pilot will spend three months conducting medical experiments before the Space Shuttle Atlantis arrives in June to bring him back to Earth.

Back on the ground, Thagard's Russian hosts will be busy preparing for six more trips by American astronauts to Mir, as well as competing with Ukraine for a contract to build a commercial space launch site in Australia and building equipment for the Alpha international space station, which will be jointly built and operated by the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency.

Russia, which has more experience than the United States in long-term space flight, will provide the life-support system for the space station, whose first components will be launched in 1997.

Moscow will also supply two capsules, an array of photovoltaic panels, and two or three Soyuz rockets that will stay permanently moored to Alpha as lifeboats in case the crew ever needs a quick ride home.

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Nations in Flight

As of March 14, a total of 325 people had flown in space. The gender and national breakdown:

* By gender

Women: 9% (28)

Men: 91% (297)

* By nation

Americans 63% (206)

Soviet / Russians: 25% (81)

Others: 12% (38)

Source: NASA's Johnson Space Center

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