Space Life Joins More Global Era ; Excitement Is High, but Some Russians Find Their Supporting Role Bittersweet

Article excerpt

When the Russian Soyuz rocket blasts off today, breaking the bonds of earth's gravity over the silent wasteland of the Kazakh steppe, its mission will mark the start of a new era in space exploration that depends upon community, not national pride.

The first crew of the international space station - American astronaut Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko - is scheduled to begin its four-month mission today, setting up permanent shop in orbit.

But while the United States and Russia are the primary partners, the station the space trio is set to dock with on Thursday is a 16- nation enterprise. Largely forsaken at this once super-secret Russian launch site is the cold war rivalry that spurred the space race for decades.

"The future of cosmonautics is international, and should be the task of humanity all over the world," says Lt. Gen. Valery Grin, head of Russia's space station commissions. And while he insists that cash-strapped Russia "has been, is, and will be a great space power," he says this station is "an investment in the future."

It was from this very launch pad, primitive and crumbling by US standards, that history was made. The first man-made satellite, Sputnik, was launched here in 1957. So was Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, in 1961.

Today the Baikonur facility, which Russia rents in Kazakhstan, 1,300 miles southeast of Moscow, is littered with the detritus of past ambitions. Rocket housings of the Soviet moon project are used as children's sandboxes; a Soviet version of the space shuttle gathers dust like any museum antique.

The US won the race to the moon in 1969, but a decade after the cold war, some Russians find it bittersweet, others just bitter, that they can only play second fiddle to the US in the space station. At a time when national space programs are hit with budget cuts, many believe that the point of the international space station is as diplomatic as it is scientific.

"It serves a bigger purpose," says Dennis Tito, a former engineer of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). "It's not just for science and exploration, but to foster cooperation with all countries." Mr. Tito hopes to be the first "space tourist" to visit Russia's aging Mir station, and is already in training for the trip, which carries a $20 million price tag. "Given that the US by itself landed men on the moon, it could build it's own space station - but the budget is a problem. This is the most sensible way," he says.

The Russians think so, too, since what they can't provide in cash for the $60 billion project - delays in building the living module, a Russian responsibility, set the program back two years - they make up for in unparalleled experience living in space.

After America won the moon race, NASA concentrated on its space shuttle program. The US Skylab station hosted three short-term crews in 1974 and '75. But the Soviets dreamed of getting to Mars, and launched Mir - now in orbit nearly 15 years - to study long- term effects on humans.

Cosmonaut Krikalev is a Mir veteran, with 484 days in space. The space station - a beloved symbol to many Russians - has been empty since June after a series of mishaps, including an onboard fire, during the 1990s. General Grin and other Russian officials say they will bring Mir down before it crashes. NASA officials hope its grounding will focus Russian space funds on the space station. …