Russians face their space crisis
By James Oberg
HOUSTON — A veteran Russian cosmonaut’s cynical and bitter words about the dire state of the Russian space industry seemed to spell his own career’s abrupt end after his return to Earth from the International Space Station. But within a week, his unprecedented public criticism was echoed and elaborated on by Russia's top space officials.
Perhaps telling the truth is catching on in Moscow, but perhaps it's already almost too late to save the Russian space industry. Over the past two years, program leadership has appeared powerless to stop a series of embarrassing failures in spacecraft launchings and flight operations that have cast the future of the entire program in doubt.
At the traditional Russian post-landing press conference on Sept. 21, cosmonaut Gennady Padalka complained about the "spartan" conditions aboard the Russian side of the station, especially as compared with the American side. The conditions were cold, noisy, overstuffed with equipment, and cramped — each Russian had about one-seventh the living space that the American astronauts had. "All of this gives serious inconvenience in the operation of the Russian segment," he said.
Padalka compared the living conditions to the mass housing thrown together in the 1960s by Nikita Khrushchev — housing where many Russian city dwellers still reside. The apartment building is called a "khrushchevka," a bitter word play on both the late Soviet leader's name and on its root meaning, "beetle" (as in "bug house"). As the cosmonaut explained to reporters, he had spent his last three missions totaling about two years in duration aboard a "small-scale khrushchevka."
Padalka found the idea of spending an entire year in space, as has been proposed, to be completely unacceptable without major improvements in crew comfort.
The equipment, he continued, was reliable and safe but was decades out of date. "Nothing has been done in the 20 years since the foundation of the new Russia," he complained. The Russian space technology is technologically bankrupt and "morally exhausted." It was, he told reporters, "frozen in the last century."
He contrasted those conditions with the spaciousness and modernity of the American modules, and praised the advanced technology he saw there: the robotics experiment ("As always, still under study in Russia") and SpaceX's commercial spacecraft docking, for example.