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Science

Russia to invest in space program 50 years after Gagarin

Exactly 50 years ago, Russia's Yuri Gagarin made history as the first human to travel into space. But following the US moon landings, it fell behind in the space race. Now Moscow hopes to be number one again.

Soyuz rocket at International Space Station

Russia's Soyuz rockets assist the International Space Station

Russia will continue to invest in its space program, said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as he marked the 50th anniversary of the day when Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin broke boundaries by becoming the first man in space.

"We were the first in space, we obtained a lot of successes and we do not want to lose our advances," said Medvedev during a glittering ceremony at the Kremlin honoring Gagarin Tuesday.

"Humanity will continue to invest in space," he added. "I want to say, in the name of Russia, that we will of course do this, as space is a priority for us."

Post-Soviet decline

The heritage of Yuri Gagarin remains a powerful one in the world of Russian space exploration. He was the first to plant a tree on the Cosmonaut Boulevard in the Kazhak city of Baikonur.

Sergey Volkov is the latest to add his. It's a tradition among Russian space travelers: Russian cosmonauts are literally required to lay roots before blasting off.

There are now more than 100 trees growing along the boulevard, one of which belongs to Volkov's father, who journeyed into space during the Soviet epoch.

Coming from a family with a history of space travel, the 50th anniversary of the Gagarin flight on April 12 is a very special day for Sergey Volkov.

"It marks a day of triumph for our country. It was the Soviet Union which started a new era fifty years ago," Volkov said.

It's a tradition which nearly came to an end after the collapse of the USSR.

"The 1990s were a really difficult time for Russia," space expert Andrej Lonin told Deutsche Welle. "The state was the only contractor for aerospace technology, and contracts shrunk 20-fold."

Changing times

Yuri Gagarin

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was a Soviet hero and remains a Russian legend

That the industry once had a different dynamism is evident on the drive to the spaceport in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

The gigantic area, which is dotted with crumbling concrete buildings, is more than twice the size of Luxembourg.

Kazakhstan inherited this massive space complex after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Today Russia rents the facility for $115 million annually.

The Soviet space program was once a cornerstone of Moscow's competition with the West, but Russia's economic collapse in the 1990s compelled the country to seek new partnerships to rescue its space-faring tradition.

Today, US and European astronauts regularly use Soyuz spacecraft, which were first developed in the sixties, for their voyages into space.

US astronaut Ronald Garan says the Soyuz rockets are "still a very reliable system."

"I think the Soyuz safety record speaks for itself. It had many, many launches and very, very few problems and when they did have problems they were very quick to fix those," Garan said.

A Soyuz booster rocket

A Soyuz TM booster rocket is transported to the launch pad at Baikonur

Space tourism

It was also a shortage of money that led Russia into the business of space tourism.

US millionaire Dennis Tito was the first to try it out in 2001, and many others followed his lead, because a Soyuz capsule only offers room enough for three people, Russian cosmonauts often have to stay behind, which Volkov says is a frustrating experience.

"We prepare for ten years, but other people buy their way into space," he said, conceding that he understands the economics of the situation. "We desperately needed money, so Tito's touristic journey into space saved us."

Igor Marinin, editor-in-chief at the Moscow-based space magazine, Nowosti Kosmonawtiki, says the situation has improved.

There is money and the order books are full, not least because many countries rely on Russian rockets to launch their satellites into space. Russia is also building its own global navigation system, GLONASS, which will compete with America's GPS.

Two problems

An insect like construction in space

The US relies on Soyuz rockets to get to the ISS International Space Station

Marinin says new spaceships are also in development, although exactly when they might fly is anybody's guess. The way he sees it, Russia's aerospace sector has two main problems.

"One is leadership," Marinin told Deutsche Welle. "Nobody is presenting the kind of great challenges that would make human eyes shine, such as a flight to Mars."

The second problem is personnel.

You have to pay people well to get them to move from other sectors into aerospace," the expert said.

Engineers in the industry used to earn 20 or 30 percent more than their counterparts in other fields, but as that is no longer the case, there is no great incentive.

But that could soon change.

This year NASA is taking its space shuttles out of circulation on the grounds that they are too old and demand too much maintenance.

That is Russia's big chance. The US has no space ships of its own to fly astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), and is therefore dependent on Russian transport capacities.

Moscow knows how to take advantage of the situation and has doubled the price for US astronauts to 55 million dollars per flight.

But money is not everything. Konstantin, a young student at the Moscow School for Aerospace Engineering says Russia should be proud of the Soviet rocket builder, Sergei Korolev.

"He developed the technology which is still used today and which will survive the Americans with their cool technology." He cites space shuttles as a case in point, but says Russia should not rest on its laurels.

Further development, he stresses, is crucial. "If we don't do that, we won't get anywhere."

Author: Spencer Kimball, Roman Goncharenko / tkw
Editor: Michael Lawton

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