THE man in the blue suit gazes upward momentarily, as if trying to look through the ceiling all the way to the distant orbit of the Mir space station. Then he rotates his large, fleshy hands to describe the mechanical failure he thinks might be gumming up the docking between the space station and an unmanned space research module, Kvant. He says he'd like to be back in Russia trying to find a solution, ``even if only on Earth.'' But he later admits that what he really wants to do is get out there and fix it himself, as the orbiting cosmonauts did indeed wind up doing on Saturday.
If anyone could imagine what a Soviet repair crew might encounter, it is Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dzhanibekov, who's touring the United States.
On June 8, 1985, a Soyuz T-13 spacecraft piloted by General Dzhanibekov - who with five trips aloft has been to space more than anyone else in the Soviet space program - and Georgy Grechko docked with the Salyut 7 space station, which had lost power. ``It was dead absolutely,'' he recalls. ``And when we came in, the temperature was below zero.'' No heat, no light. Just emptiness, cold, and silence.
He and his fellow cosmonaut spent two months repairing the station in primitive living and working conditions (in the absence of functioning instruments, they determined the temperature inside the space station by spitting on the wall and timing how long it took for the spittle to freeze) until they got it operational.
Today, Dzhanibekov is wearing neither the gear of the working cosmonaut nor a military uniform, but the conservative blue suit of the salesman.
The silver-haired cosmonaut with searching blue eyes is in the US to promote the Association of Space Explorers, an international organization of 40 individuals who share the experience of seeing Earth from space. The goal of the association is ``to transcend national differences in the development and exploration of space.'' And he is plainly here to make the case that his country wants international cooperation, as he stresses to an international audience attending the founding conference of the International Space University here.
Dzhanibekov is preaching to the converted in this audience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, assembled specifically to launch an effort to share knowledge and educational cooperation across national borders. The idea of the university is to bring together graduate students from an international pool of top scholars to engage in advanced learning from the world's leading space experts, scientists, and engineers. The university's first term, in the summer of '88, will be held at MIT and funded with $1.3 million, from corporations and foundations.
The presence of a Russian cosmonaut sitting with American astronaut Rusty Schweickart underscored the theme of international cooperation.
``We wish to work with American astronauts,'' Dzhanibekov says. He observes that astronauts and cosmonauts understand each other, because they've faced the same dangers and seen the same extraterrestrial beauty. He says his government is willing ``to cooperate at every level'' with joint space efforts; ``but unfortunately such space activity is now zero.''
(Yesterday, in fact, the US and the Soviet Union signed an agreement on cooperation in space, according to the Soviet news agency Tass, which said the agreement was signed by US Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.)
While Dzhanibekov may be marching in the recently inaugurated parade of Soviet citizens sent abroad to offer a more pliant, easygoing image of their system, he doesn't play the role.
Sitting rigidly, almost at attention, at a press conference table, his hands held tightly before him, his feet planted immovably in one posture, he speaks carefully and succinctly. He makes no bones about his real feelings toward gatherings of this nature, telling the audience that he would rather be in the space station or directing space activities from Earth.
Later, sitting down for an interview in a room apart from the scientific throng, he relaxes a bit more: Puffing on a pungent Soviet cigarette, carefully catching the ashes in his hand, he laughs quietly and talks eagerly about his visit to a local Radio Shack store; his paintings (two of them have been rendered as postage stamps); his hopes for manned interplanetary travel; his long climb into the Soviet space program; and his reaction to the Challenger disaster.
``It shocked us,'' he says. ``It was very sad for us.... It reminded us once again that space is a very dangerous place, that it is dangerous to be calm in space.'' Dzhanibekov also acknowledges that the Soviet space program has been rocked by disasters and that there were ``periods when we had to stop for one year at least'' to rebound from such catastrophes as the death of two cosmonauts in 1971, when a pressure equalization valve accidentally opened in their Soyuz 11 craft.
What leads someone to brave those dangers - to become a cosmonaut?
``Every person has inside them some talent,'' he answers. ``There are some people who are led to to test something, to risk, to climb mountains, to fly, to go.'' This rough approximation of what Americans might call ``the right stuff'' is the basic material of a cosmonaut. What it takes to get from the inherent talent to the perch atop a rocket is ``to like your job more than yourself.''
And Vladimir Dzhanibekov certainly liked the job of cosmonaut.
At this stage of his career, Dzhanibekov is an elder statesman of the Soviet space program, decorated with the Order of Lenin five times and the title of Hero of the Soviet Union twice.
The dream of flight that he says still lingers with him began in 1957, when the Soviet Union flung the first man-made object, Sputnik, into space. It intensified a month later when the dog Laika became the first living being put into orbit. Dzhanibekov laughs heartily at the suggestion that he saw a dog fly into space and then wanted to chase after it.
But chase after it he did.
He talks constantly about space. The challenges and the overwhelming attraction. The obstacles standing in the way of interplanetary travel: ``Now, it's just an idea. It's very difficult for one country to work out the problems.''
And, finally, the lost opportunity to - in the words of a World War II Royal Canadian Air Force pilot - ``have slipped the surly bonds of earth.''
``I would like to go up again,'' he says wistfully. ``But now it's just a dream.''