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Aging Mir Isn't So Worrisome as Russia's Long-term Technological Decay

The Mir Dilemma: Would You Go Up There?


Yesterday's decision to place astronaut David Wolf aboard Mir despite months of accidents and mechanical problems on the aging space station was the culmination of weeks of scientific risk assessment.

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NASA program manager Frank Culbertson, a former astronaut himself, argues that the risks are manageable while the benefits will be substantial. Mr. Culbertson and other NASA experts contend that the reports of recent power, computer, and navigation failures on Mir have been blown out of proportion by the press.

They can't promise, however, that there won't be more mechanical failures on Mir.

But while attention is riveted on what will happen aboard Mir today, tomorrow, and next week, no one has adequately addressed how Russian technology, struggling with the ills of the post-Soviet economy, will perform in the long term.

NASA is on the verge of embarking on the 13-year International Space Station (ISS) project in which Russian know-how and cosmonauts will be central players.

The Shuttle-Mir flights are practice runs designed to jump-start the ISS. The $400 million NASA provided to the Russian Space Agency for the Shuttle-Mir program has been a bargain. During six joint missions, we've gleaned many Russian tricks of the trade.

But the pipelines that have provided Russia with unique talent and cutting-edge technologies to sustain sophisticated programs, including a reliable space program, are drying up.

The sprawling complex of Russian science and technology institutions, highly educated researchers, and internationally renowned scientific schools built up over many decades at a cost of trillions of dollars is rapidly disintegrating.

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Leading scientists, engineers, and educators have migrated to better paying jobs in business, while the most talented young specialists are seeking professional opportunities abroad. An increasing number of scientists and engineers who remain spend only a few hours a day at the work place before turning to second jobs or the hunt for food and supplies to support extended families.

Test facilities have been mothballed, and production units are turning out titanium golf clubs, catamarans, and milking machines. Many research laboratories are inactive, their space leased to glitzy banks, auto showrooms, and designer shops.

Stresses from a chaotic life affect all Russians. The life expectancy of males has plummeted to 57 years, suggesting aging cosmonauts and technical staffs may no longer be the fittest of the fit.

Amid this technological decay, there are a few bright spots.

After a burst of student interest in management and business courses, applications to science and engineering departments are up slightly.

Small firms with marketable high-tech products are emerging. Occasional big deals, such as aerospace giant Energomash's alliance with Pratt Whitney to provide 101 rocket engines to Lockheed Martin, spark optimism.

And on a personal level: On my recent visit to the Volga region, a Russian colleague cornered me with his digital camera connected to a state-of-the-art computer; quickly, my wife saw on her screen in Virginia my colorful image.

In the short term, Mir hopefully is safe.

But looking ahead, a prompt infusion of financial resources by NASA to the Russian education and research institutions that are to provide needed personnel and technologies during the next decade is an essential insurance policy for the ISS program. A commitment of $100 million over the next five years, or 0.3 percent of the total US contribution to the ISS program, would go a long way to ensuring secure technical footings in Russia.

Since Russian scientists work for about $20 per day, the spinoff benefits beyond the ISS for the American aeronautics and space communities would be considerable.

* Glenn Schweitzer is the author of "Experiments in Cooperation: Assessing U.S.-Russian Programs in Science and Technology" (Twentieth Century Fund, 1997). From 1992 to 1994, he was the first executive director of the International Science and Technology Center in Moscow, an intergovernmental organization to support redirection of defense scientists to civilian tasks.

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