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


BAIKONUR COSMODROME, Kazakhstan — 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.

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