A Vaunted Space Program Now Stuck on the Launch Pad Joint Venture with US Helps Keep Cosmonauts in Orbit BY: Peter Ford, Staff Writer of the Christian Science Monitor Series: The Comeback Empire? Russia Five Years after the Fall. Part 3 of a 4 Part Series

Article excerpt

A thick blanket of snow muffles the silent streets and buildings of the Yuri Gagarin cosmonaut training center, deep in a pine forest just outside of Moscow.

Once upon a time this miniature campus shone at the heart of the Soviet Union's most prestigious and successful endeavor - its space program. The handpicked heroes who graduated became international symbols of the Kremlin's claim that Moscow and its communist creed were the wave of the future.

Today, there are few signs of activity. Starved of funds by a government that has its eyes fixed on narrower horizons than the heavens, the center is barely ticking. Indeed, the entire Russian space program may be on its last legs, according to some local experts, simply for want of money. Certainly, Russia's space scientists have suffered some embarrassing flops recently. Most publicly, a Mars space probe crashed into the Pacific in November after its booster rocket failed. It took with it to the bottom of the ocean Russia's hopes of being part of a major international exploration project, and the accident further tarnished the space program's image. The Russian Space Agency is so short of money that more than once it has had to postpone the launch of rockets scheduled to resupply the aging Mir orbital space station, which houses rotating teams of astronauts and scientists. Russia is still part of the "Alpha" project - an international scheme to build a successor space station to Mir due for completion early next century. Indeed "it is the Alpha project {mainly paid for by Washington} that is keeping our space industry going," says Maj. …