In a clearing in the woodland near the banks of the vast Volga River, a jubilant crowd is gathered around a tall metal obelisk that marks the exact spot where Yury Gagarin parachuted to earth 50 years ago after his historic first space flight.
“When I first heard that a man had flown to space, I didn’t believe it,” says Yury Alexandrovich, 71, who came to Tuesday’s festivities and says he was working nearby when Gagarin landed. “The news came through that he’d landed close by and we got in the car and came to see if it was true, and there he was in a space suit. It was like a fairytale.”
After orbiting the Earth, Gagarin ejected from the now legendary Vostok 1 spacecraft during the descent and landed here, just 40 km from his old university town of Saratov.
Once a muddy potato field, the site has now been turned into a concrete strip to accommodate the annual celebrations and the occasional wedding. As Soviet tunes blast out of a couple of enormous speakers and schoolchildren stream out of busses in a nearby parking lot to lay wreaths under a giant statue of Gagarin, it is hard to believe that the space race ended along with the Soviet Union 20 years ago.
The days of geo-political wrangling for dominance in space are long gone, though, and Russia’s space industry has been crippled by a stream of funding cuts and neglect.
Russia’s Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, has come under fierce criticism for a number of recent set-backs, including the delayed launch of the latest Soyuz mission to the International Space Station, which commemorated Gagarin’s flight. Late last year, three navigation satellites – which would have made the Russian rival to the U.S. Global Positioning System fully operational – were lost in the Pacific Ocean after a carrier rocket veered off course.
But the Russian leadership has vowed to steer the country back into the vanguard of global space exploration. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised last week to increase Russia’s presence on the space market, while President Dmitry Medvedev has named aerospace one of the five industries the government plans to develop in the next decade.
And the potential is still there. Despite two decades of neglect, Russia has managed to preserve some of the best space scientists and technology in the world. It has launched more satellites than any other country and the relatively simple design of its Soyuz rockets (based on the very same design as Gagarin’s Vostok) has outlived NASA’s shuttles.
In a show of comradeship unheard of two decades ago, Russia’s Soyuz rockets will become the only way for U.S. astronauts to get to the International Space Station after the United States mothballs its last shuttle in June this year.
Today’s space drive has lost the patriotic fervour of space exploration in Gagarin’s day and is focused instead on commercial factors. Roscosmos head Anatoly Perminov says the space industry would bring around $1 billion a year to the Russian economy if the country had the capacity to carry out all requested launches, including commercial flights. In view of this, Roscosmos has begun increasing its rocket production.
“Russia is going in the direction of commercializing its space industry,” says Professor Sa’id Mosteshar, Director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law. “It can’t avoid this if it wants to develop in new areas as space exploration is very expensive.”
The country is already the forerunner in the global space tourism industry, which is expected to take off in the next decade. The U.S. tour operator Space Adventures has clinched a deal with Roscosmos to send three tourists a year on the Soyuz after 2013.
“The Soyuz is still the most reliable spacecraft and I think it will be a long time before another vehicle with the same reliability comes along,” Space Adventures President Tom Shelley says. “Until then, there will be steady demand for the existence of Russia in the market.”
Russia’s space budget has tripled since 2007 and has now reached the highest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin said in January that the government will spend $3.8 billion on Russia’s national space program in 2011, making the country the fourth-largest spender on space after NASA, the European Space Agency and France.
Roscosmos is currently working on a new program, due to begin in 2015, with a strong focus on outer space exploration. As well as the development of a new space launch facility and rocket, the agency said in April that the program may envisage manned flights to the Moon by the end of the decade, 10 years earlier than originally planned, and the establishment of a base there by 2030. A mission to Mars in cooperation with other space programs is pencilled in for 2040.
Back in the forest clearing, where a light April shower has brought an end to the music and dispersed the crowd, people are less optimistic.
“Gagarin is a symbol of how much potential our country once had and we are proud to celebrate that,” says Alexander Yakovlev, a mechanic who travelled 500 km to be here today. “We will never achieve anything like that again.”
SARATOV, April 12 (Natasha Doff, RIA Novosti)