Mission to Baikonur

by Walter Cunningham  

In his debut column for Launch, Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham evaluates the once secret Russian space program.

Author’s note: I appreciate the opportunity to share my opinion with you in LAUNCH Magazine. Those familiar with my writings know I am free with my opinion even if it is not the popular view or politically correct. I will try to continue in that vein. I plan to avoid details and concentrate on analysis and the implications of events that affect the space community.

Baikonur01I recently had the privilege of spending ten days with a group of Harvard Alumni exploring the secrets of the Russian space program. It included the launch of TMA-10 to the International Space Station and the launch facilities at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. In addition to a number of space museums, we visited the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC) in Star City and observed the rendezvous with the ISS at Moscow Mission Control, called TsUP, in Korolev, outside the city.

Our unprecedented access allowed me to update my impressions of the Russian space program. My initial opinion was formed by Aviation Week, fellow astronauts and what I could glean from occasional contact with a cosmonaut. In 1991, on the 30th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight, I was able to peek under the edge of the Russian tent. I was part of a small group of astronauts hosted by the cosmonauts as official guests of the Soviet Union. We assumed our access was good and, for the times, it probably was.

For the last dozen years, Russia and the United States have been partners in space. We have flown on each other’s spacecraft; we used the Space Shuttle to add six years to the life of the Mir Space Station and rescued a bankrupt Russian space program at a cost of billions of dollars. The Russians provided our lifeline to keep the ISS alive when the Shuttle was grounded for three years.

Times change; the space landscape has changed; and, hopefully, my opinion reflects those changes.

All Russian manned spacecraft have been launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, three hours by air from Moscow and 125 miles east of the Aral Sea, in the middle of the barren desert and grassland of Kazakhstan. It is adjacent to, and just North of the city of Baikonur. The two are joined at the hip. The town is showing its age, not unlike the cosmodrome itself. Many of the Soviet era apartment blocks stand abandoned and the population hovers around 60,000, down from a peak of 100,000 in its heyday.

Baikonur does have a couple of new hotels. What we once called the cosmonaut quarters has been refurbished and is now designated the Cosmonaut Hotel. The city is now open to non-Russians, and there is a movie theater and a brand new Russian Orthodox Church.

The Baikonur Cosmodrome, at 2,500 square miles, is the world’s oldest and largest space launch facility. It encompasses nine launch complexes with 15 launch pads, and is now, technically, part of Russia, which pays rent on the site under a lease that runs until 2050. Baikonur was also one of the first nuclear weapons bases with dozens of missile silos, many of which are now abandoned.

In 1991, we still suffered from limited knowledge of what went on behind the “Iron Curtain.” It was difficult to engage in a candid conversation about past catastrophes or other “difficulties” in their program—even with cosmonauts. We took for granted they would not say much, but underestimated how much they might not know.

Their vaunted security was not all that restrictive. When Apollo 14 astronaut Stu Roosa and I visited the Energia launch pad, we climbed up on the launch structure for a better look at the rocket erected there. We were able to get close enough to the engine bell to kick a hole in it before a soldier wandered over and “invited” us to come down.

Today, everyone is much more willing to talk, even candidly, but there is still that gap on what they know. They have a blank spot because of what they were not permitted to know in the past.

Their obsession with security is intact, and having the right security man with you is the key to getting to the right places.

The rollout of Soyuz TMA-10 takes place at the crack of a cold dawn in a light, drizzly rain. When we arrived at building 112, where the spacecraft and launch vehicle are mated, the hangar door was already open, the train engine was running and lights were flashing. The fully assembled Soyuz rocket lies horizontally on the train, ready to begin the two-mile trip to the Gagarin Start, or launch pad.

The crowd of about 100 consists of press, cosmonauts, families and friends of the flight crew, some military, and invited special guests, like our small group. We can get as close as we like so long as we do not actually get onto the tracks. We walk alongside as the train moves slowly past at two to four miles per hour. Pretty exciting!

We track the progress of TMA-10 and arrive at the Gagarin Start at the same time. Observers are caught up in a party atmosphere while, 25 feet away, two-dozen workers erect the Soyuz in about 30 minutes. Everyone “knows” the launch will be on time, reflecting the confidence one can have with a vehicle that has launched 1720 times and has placed 1661 satellites in orbit.

Baikonur02The flight crew is not at the rollout. For the next two days, they will divide their time between essential activities (physicals, press conferences, suiting, etc.) and traditional activities, such as signing the door of their room, stopping at the Gagarin and Korolev dachas, and urinating on the bus tire on the way to the pad. Tradition is a pretty serious matter in Russia.

Our group will spend the two days between rollout and liftoff exploring the cosmodrome over two- lane, pot-holed roads. We did encounter one old but excellent concrete roadway. It was the one between Jubileynaya Airfield, where the Buran (a twin to our Space Shuttle) was to be regularly recovered, and building 254, where it would be serviced. That road was needed only once, in 1988.

Soyuz, Progress, and other launch facilities operate smoothly in the midst of empty buildings and abandoned launch pads. The many facilities “abandoned in place” offer silent testimony to what used to be. The Russians have designed their space hardware so it does not require the stringent clean room environment under which we operate.

When the Soviets finally gave up on the race to the Moon, the two launch pads constructed for the giant N1 rocket were rebuilt for the Buran. The two spectacular pads have been sitting deserted and rusting since the Buran was cancelled in the early 1990s. What must be the largest flame trench in the world has weeds growing between the thousands of blocks of concrete with which it is surfaced.

The rundown facilities look terrible, but the Russians spend their now limited funds on rocket ships and operations, not preventive maintenance and mothballing buildings. The roof on Building 112 collapsed in 2002 when workmen stacked too many roofing materials in one spot. Unfortunately, there was a Buran in the hangar at the time and it was damaged beyond repair. The Buran has been removed, but the collapsed roof is still plainly visible to visitors.

A few hours before the night liftoff, the party reconvenes less than a mile from the launch pad. There are no bleachers or other amenities for an audience numbering in the hundreds. There are no special facilities for the media, few public announcements, and no traffic jams. There is a small snack bar, with a couple of tables occupied by partiers, including cosmonauts, military officers, and a few celebrities, generously sharing their Vodka, black bread and cheese.

Baikonur03Liftoff is on time, to the second. Nine minutes later, when the Soyuz reaches orbit, a cheer goes up and the crowd adjourns to a postlaunch reception at the Energia hangar.

A bare-bones program and relatively simple missions seems to work for the Russians. NASA’s penchant for sophisticated or complex hardware allows them to fly complex missions, but it introduces more uncertainties. It is also what enabled us win the race to the Moon in the 1960s.

There are other ironies: They develop the most efficient servicing and launch procedures, but still experience a large number of launch disasters and a greater number of near disasters; they build the sophisticated Buran and invest billions of dollars in hardware and two launch pads and then fly the vehicle into orbit only once—unmanned.

One should not leave the cosmodrome without noting the dozens of abandoned ICBM silos, some filled with concrete. Many of the ICBMs they once contained are now generating revenue with commercial launches, a good example of converting weapons to plowshares.

Returning to the Moscow area and the once highly classified and secretive Star City is like traveling from the Kennedy Space Center to the Johnson Space Center. Star City is home to the Yuri Gagarin cosmonaut Training Center, or GCTC. The GCTC characterizes their mission as turning out cosmonauts with a “Doctorate of Spaceflight.”

Russian pilot cosmonauts are poorly qualified by our standards (I am talking about flying credentials), but they have proven more than adequate for the missions they are called on to perform. Collectively, they have also survived a large number of emergencies and hardware failures with a minimum loss of life. Their strong suit is their perseverance, their willingness to push forward under circumstances that would have the American program back on its heels. At the same time, they spend a ridiculously high number of hours on vehicle maintenance for each hour of useful science.

The GCTC accomplishes its mission with facilities similar to, but definitely inferior to astronaut training facilities. The on site planetarium is archaic, and I doubt if it is used for much more than a tourist attraction, including local schoolchildren. What was referred to as a “Mir Space Station simulator” looks like a fit and function mockup or a procedures trainer. At the Soyuz “integrated simulator,” an American female astronaut was training in the reentry module with a Russian instructor. A little snooping led me to the simulator “control room”—two Russians operating a couple of desktop computers—presumably driving the simulator. The so-called “simulator” could have been little more than a crew procedures trainer.

The world’s largest centrifuge looks like it could easily reach the G loads actually experienced by some cosmonauts on launch aborts and less than optimum reentries. The Energia Space Museum displays artifacts from the history of space travel in the former Soviet Union and today’s Russia, including Yuri Gagarin’s original landing module and a full-scale mock-up of the Apollo-Soyuz docking. Of course, the Russians refer to it as “Soyuz-Apollo.”

The museum is located on the grounds of the Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation factory, which designs and builds rockets, spacecraft and other components. In Soviet times, this facility was known as Special Design Bureau No. 1. The curator who showed us around was the most knowledgeable I have found in a space museum. He was especially curious about anything to do with the American Moon landing program. He also consistently left the impression that the International Space Station was a Russian ISS. After 2010, they could be right.

The Moscow suburb of Korolev is also the home of Moscow Mission Control (TsUP). These days it resembles a NASA mission control center, something Tom Stafford takes credit for during his tenure with Apollo-Soyuz.

I returned from my visit with a new respect for the Russian way of conquering space. The Russians have sometimes wasted huge amounts of money on false starts, but they have also embraced the evolution of their early space hardware. From their original Sputnik booster, they have added strap-on modules and lengthened and added stages as necessary to achieve what is now the Soyuz booster. Simple and impressive!

The Russians maintained a 48-hour space rescue capability all through the 1980s; NASA would have great difficulty launching a rescue vehicle in four to six weeks, even if the need were anticipated.

With all their disasters and near disasters, you never hear a Russian talk about reconsidering their commitment to a healthy space program. While we periodically undergo “agonizing reappraisals” about our commitment to space, the Russians talk confidently of new vehicles and travel to Mars.

Isn’t it time the public, the Congress, and the president acknowledged that the U.S. is in space to stay? That an aggressive space program is as much a part of the American fabric as the military, social security, and Medicare?