[interview with professor Vladimir Kovalenok, pilot-cosmonaut of the USSR and head of the Zhukovskiy air force academy, by Ivan Boltovskiy]
Today we are speaking to Professor Vladimir Vasilyevich Kovalenok, pilot-cosmonaut of the USSR, Colonel General, and twice hero of the soviet union. He was born in 1942 in the Belarusian village of Belaye. He graduated from the Balashovskiy higher military aviation school in 1963 and was assigned to the cosmonaut corps in 1967. In 1977 he made his first flight in the Soyuz-25 spacecraft to the Salyut-6 orbital station. Then there was the flight in Soyuz-29, which involved a space walk, and the flight in Soyuz-T4 in 1981. He graduated from the general staff academy, held the post of deputy commander of the air army of the strategic supreme high command and was in charge of the scientific research institute for aviation and space technology. Since 1992 he has been head of the Zhukovskiy air force academy.
[Boltovskiy] Vladimir Vasilyevich, you are a member of the Stafford-Utkin consultative council of experts on problems concerning the safety of international space flights. This council is involved in the implementation of the Alpha orbital station project. How is Russian-U.S. cooperation developing?
[Kovalenok] I must correct you at once: this name for the station is now not used in official documents. How can it be called Alpha when our Mir orbital complex has been in space for 11 years now? We explained this to the Americans in understandable terms and they agreed. Therefore, it will be referred to as the international space station (ISS). As regards cooperation, my view is unequivocal: the Americans are trying at all costs to oust us from the leading position which Russia occupies today in the sphere of world cosmonautics. We have opened our doors wide to the United States: you want to know about the methods of organizing long flights? -- Fine, help yourselves; you want to work on Mir? -- go ahead! They are using our station for around $300-400 million, which means practically for free. It took us more than a decade to construct it, we spent hundreds of billions of rubles, and we have sacrificed our health for it: it is no secret that many cosmonauts have contracted occupational illnesses.
[Boltovskiy] Were you not happy when the shuttle docked for the first time with Mir?
[Kovalenok] Yes, this was indeed an event and I recall the loud and lengthy applause at the time at central flight control. I will tell you frankly that I had a lump in my throat and I told my family afterwards that this is the beginning of the decline of our space program which is Russia's national pride. And so it turned out. Here is a good example. At its own wish and as it saw fit, one of the NASA laboratories cobbled together a model of inner space at the altitude at which the orbital station files and then calculated the probability of its being hit by meteorites, and drew an unexpected conclusion. It turns out that there is no guarantee that our service module which we are manufacturing for the ISS will remain in space for 10 years with the stated probability of 0.96. The probability of its viability, as the Americans think, is only 0.76. They coordinated their method of calculation neither with the Russian Space Agency, nor with the European, nor with the Japanese.... They made the calculation and sent a corresponding "pamphlet" to congress. The latter, naturally, expressed genuine concern. In turn, NASA's director informed the Russian space agency of the need to make speedy decisions to prevent the construction of the ISS from stalling.
In this regard, academician V. Utkin's commission, including myself, flew to Houston in February. It was necessary to ascertain why the project which had been approved long ago was being revised. Having worked with the Americans, I realized that the methods and approaches they were using were nothing less than provocation pure and simple. They were needed to turn a technical problem into an economic one and then transfer it onto the political plane.
[Boltovskiy] So it turns out that even technology cannot escape politics?
[Kovalenok] The Americans are insisting that it is necessary to change the station's ideology, architecture, and design, as a result of which we will have to create some different kind of module apart from the one that is already functioning. I view this demand as an attempt to dissipate our production and scientific forces and thereby bring the Russian "train" to a standstill. What does this mean? When we get embroiled in financial and other problems they will tell us: sorry, friends, you have fallen behind in fulfilling the program and therefore we will fill the station with our own equipment. This is what will happen and Russia will be left with the role of detached observer. We will stand and watch the Americans from behind, waiting to see whether we will be invited to participate in space research.
[Boltovskiy] But the Mir station has been in orbit for so many years now and it has not got a single hole -- that is a fact which, as they say, cannot be denied. Are you not exaggerating the urgency of the prevailing situation?
[Kovalenok] Our stations have been functioning for a total of 25 years. However, this real-life experiment does not seem to exist as far as the Americans are concerned. The outer casing of Salyut-6 had cavities and Mir has them as well. There were holes in the solar batteries but such things are inevitable and are easily put right. These arguments presented by the Russian side worked and we succeeded in getting the Americans to moderate their requirements to a certain extent. We agreed to draw up a plan of measures that aim to eliminate ambiguous issues.
[Boltovskiy] Nevertheless congressman Sensenbrenner who was recently in Moscow questioned the Russian space agency's ability to cope with the implementation of the ISS project.
[Kovalenok] Yes, that was the essence of his press conference in the Metropol hotel. It is as if he was unaware of the conclusion of the most eminent Russian scientists who are working on the problem of the protection of spacecraft from attacks by micrometeorites. They considered the doubts expressed by American specialists as to the reliability of the service module to be wholly groundless.
[Boltovskiy] We get the impression that the United States would like to use Russia as a kind of cab driver. It puts the American spacecraft into orbit and then -- good-bye! They are aiming to manufacture all the special-purpose hi-tech equipment themselves. If this is how things turn out, there will be little left of our hi-tech industry.
[Kovalenok] Absolutely right! Russian specialists working in Houston are increasingly often hearing Americans say: "We don't really need you any more. We can manage on our own." We have taught them, to our own detriment!
But the most unpleasant and awful thing from the point of view of national interests is that competition, rivalry for U.S. orders, is developing among our representatives in Houston. I have in mind the Khrunichev state research and production space center and the Energiya Science and Production Association.
[Boltovskiy] How can they compete when the former makes the "box" and the latter the contents?
[Kovalenok] The point is that the Americans are pushing the Khrunichev workers to start producing not the top-priority unit but the one that will be used in a few years time. Why is priority being given to it? Because, under the contract, it is the Americans who are to fill it. The unit to which the Energiya science and production association is "tied" is being back-burnered and our "fillers" are left without an order.
[Boltovskiy] I would like to go back a little in time. When the ISS project was still being devised, the Russian side proposed that the Mir station be used as a construction site, which would reduce expenditure considerably on the erection of "new buildings." However, strange as it may seem, the frugal Americans rejected this option and we agreed with them.
[Kovalenok] We were in too much of a hurry to get our hands on the money which the Americans were giving. Now, no doubt, pitifully little remains of those dollars, and that really suits the Americans very much. They are sitting pretty while we are racking our brains over where to find the money to cope with our order.As a result of hasty compliance, the Americans are now making increasingly tough demands each day and not behaving in the best manner. For example, they feel themselves to be completely in charge in Zvezdnyy Gorodok, as if it was their own home. When, against our will, the astronaut Shepherd was appointed as the future commander of the ISS crew, the Americans, who have not once been to the Mir Station and have no experience of using such facilities, soon arrived in Zvezdnyy Gorodok. And they did not request but demanded: give us the documents, we will learn how to do the work on the station! You are surprised that they do not take expenditure into account? You must understand that the ISS is primarily a question of worldwide prestige as far as the Americans are concerned and they are prepared to incur any costs to achieve this. At the same time, virtually the entire U.S. space industry has received an advance order that will provide it with budget funds and jobs for the next 20 years or so!
[Boltovskiy] Russia is now forced to spend money on servicing Mir and on the ISS at the same time. We have given ourselves a double burden, we are knocking ourselves out and working to all intents and purposes for the prestige of the United States!
[Kovalenok] I do not agree with you on this score. You have to clearly understand that what we are doing in space is to the state's advantage and this advantage cannot be measured by money alone. If the country loses the space program with the help of the press which echoes those who do not need it, we will be like Zimbabwe, no offense intended. Remember the Russian socialist federative soviet republic supreme soviet, which viewed the inordinate expenditure on maintaining the army as the reason for all the economic troubles. They ruined the army but where is the influx of wealth? Now they have set about the space program. It is no secret that there are people in both the Duma and the government who are deliberately undermining cosmonautics. They are probably unaware that the high technologies developed with the help of cosmonauts are widely used in the construction of engines, oil extraction, medicine, and other spheres. As a result of Buran alone some 600 sophisticated technologies were created and contracts were concluded to sell them for 47 million rubles (at 1992 prices)! If we had started to trade in space information in good time, we not only would have had money today for space but also would have provided the budget with additional funds.
[Boltovskiy] It seems to me that even now we are not achieving much success here.
[Kovalenok] My work in studying the world oceans, which enables bioproductive zones to be automatically determined and the fishing fleet to be used efficiently, remains surplus to requirements to this day. No one wants it! But this will not always be the case. Therefore, in spite of the outcry of certain so-called politicians and journalists, we must do everything possible to maintain our position in space. And we have now reached that critical moment when the state should recognize this and take cosmonautics under its wing.
[Boltovskiy] Perhaps it would be better if these nihilist gentlemen turned their attention to U.S. policy? Look what is happening. The U.S. share in building the ISS is put at $17 billion while Russia's is $3.3 billion. However, given that the station's total weight is 377 tonnes, our part of the work will weigh approximately 140 tonnes and theirs 37 tonnes [sic!]. The ratio is clearly disproportionate. Of course, the value of equipment is not determined by its weight, but nevertheless.... In my view, the Russian side's contribution has been underestimated, to put it mildly.
[Kovalenok] I do not doubt this at all. Figure out how much an American worker, engineer, and scientist earns and how much our specialists earn. The difference is colossal. This is why there is a huge discrepancy in the cost of the Russian and the U.S. participation. I believe that, as this is an international station, all work should have been costed according to world prices.
[Boltovskiy] The use of the ISS after its completion will no doubt depend on the contribution of a given space agency to its creation. So will Russia therefore receive only a mere "crumb" of time for carrying out its scientific research, compared with the United States?
[Kovalenok] You have touched on a question which I have already raised repeatedly. As of today the Americans are building relationships with other agencies on a bilateral basis. How does that benefit them? The figures you have cited speak for themselves. And of course, when the time comes to reap the fruits of the station, the Americans could say: we paid the piper more, so we will dance for longer. To ensure that this does not happen, it is necessary without delay to fill the legal vacuum in which the United States could impose its will. It is necessary to draw up a document defining in accordance with international law the place and role of each country and each agency as regards the funding, the scientific contribution, and the use of the station. At a recent session of the Stafford-Utkin consultative council in Houston I asked for this question to be included on the agenda for the meeting. But the Americans voted this down. It is too soon to talk about that, they said....
[Boltovskiy] But really this question should have been raised back in 1993, when the agreement on creating the ISS was being drawn up.
[Kovalenok] A memorandum was signed at that time. It has no legal force, because it is not in accordance with the norms of the International Space Law adopted in 1967. The result is that the only legal entity today is the United States! As always, we are wise after the hangover wears off.
[Boltovskiy] A pretty unpleasant hangover, frankly....
[Kovalenok] I don't know a single cosmonaut, particularly among the
veterans, who is delighted with the way the ISS project is being implemented. I have heard that cosmonaut Anatoliy Solovyev, who was included in the ISS crew, has submitted a formal request to be allowed to decline this honor. Specifically as a protest against the dominance of American ideology over the future station.
[Boltovskiy] Viktor Smolin, who led the Russian delegation to the talks on the ISS, committed suicide after returning from Washington. That was on 14 May 1994. The book "the s.p. korolev energiya space rocket Corporation" ["rkk 'energiya' im. S.p. koroleva"], published in 1996, notes in connection with those talks that they "were extremely difficult and often became deadlocked; Russian specialists are not accustomed to the Americans' tough and sometimes tactless stance.... The phrase 'the U.S. congress has decided' is often heard instead of a valid argument." So it looks like the cause of Smolin's death does not lie in a personal tragedy?
[Kovalenok] I cannot rule that out. I can judge from my own experience. For instance, when you fly to the States, they greet you with fervid hospitality. But as soon as I tell Stafford that I don't owe him anything and he has no right to dictate his terms, the former hospitality disappears without trace. And this in spite of the fact that Stafford and I are colleagues, both generals! And just look at the process of finalizing documents. Sometimes it makes me want to lay into them -- in words, of course, in Russian.... You hand the Americans a finished version. The English translation arrives, you look at it -- and you can't believe your eyes! It's a completely different text. We rework it again and send back the paper, and the same thing happens again. For instance, instead of five points, seven appear. And they behave particularly outrageously with the final documents. It's totally brazen!
[Boltovskiy] And it gets results. As I understand it, control of the ISS will take place solely from Houston, and our central flight control will be out of it.
[Kovalenok] Yes, the Americans are taking steps to keep central flight control out of the game. But I hope we won't allow it, so that our specialists are out of a job and lose their skills. After all, central flight control represents a bundle of knowledge and colossal experience of work in the most extreme conditions. Depriving central flight control of its "bread" is the simplest way of putting an end to the country's manned cosmonautics.
[Boltovskiy] What do you think of the fact that in the near future our Progress cargo ship will be out of a job? Cargo for the ISS will be delivered by shuttles, although Progress is much cheaper to operate.
[Kovalenok] Again because this boosts U.S. prestige. But something else must also be borne in mind. If you add up the expenditure on creating the required number of cargo and transport ships and booster rockets for them and the expenditure on the station itself, this is an intolerable burden for us. The Americans know our potential, we have shown them our silos. Anyway, they can count. They even know the numbers of the ships that are still on the stocks. The Americans have built the expensive shuttle, and they need it to pay its way. They don't care if Progress ends up on the garbage heap.
[Boltovskiy] as happened, for instance, with Buran, a photograph of which hangs on your office wall. Will the same fate befall the MAKS multipurpose air-space system, designed by the Molniya science and production association, which is an improved version of buran? The use of the AN-225 aircraft as a launch pad opens up very wide possibilities for the launching of orbital devices, but for some reason the project has stalled....
[Kovalenok] We are walking on glass, metaphorically speaking. It has stalled because in our country there is still a monopoly on bread and butter. It so happens that leadership posts and offices, including some in government circles, are held by people from the space rocket complex. And it is thanks to their lobbying that we have squandered capital on the construction of the new Svobodnyy cosmodrome, at a time when the whole world, 17 countries already, is going over to MAKS systems. Can you imagine what it costs to ship a miserable little bolt from central Russia to the far east? And we'll still have to follow the latest fashion in the end. For the tasks that only the space rocket complex can cope with, Plesetskoye or Baykonur would be quite enough. The MAKS reusable air-space system, you realize, does not need a cosmodrome. And it offers the opportunity to launch a spaceship from anywhere in the world. Now they've dreamed up the "sea launch," and here you can't do without the rocket men. But how long will it take to sail to the equator, say, and how much time will Mriya [the MAKS system] take? But even that is not all. A launch from MAKS can be carried out with any angle of inclination -- isn't that a miracle?
[Boltovskiy] Maybe financial and technical difficulties have brought things to a halt?
[Kovalenok] There are no technological problems, there is just one question -- the development of capacities for the production of liquid oxygen and hydrogen. The financial expenditure on this would be recouped literally in a few years. Especially since others are ready to cooperate with us -- Britain, the United States, Brazil, Japan.... It is very advantageous and promising technology!
Unfortunately we are approaching it extremely slowly, although its advantages are obvious. Just look: suppose Mriya flies down to the New Zealand region, from where the spaceship is launched. It refuels there, it takes on board 100 tonnes of butter, beef, lamb -- in short, it takes on goods and delivers them to Russia. Surely that will reduce the cost of launching spaceships? The benefits from the use of MAKS are obvious, and therefore I have not lost hope that the government will turn its attention to it.
[passage omitted on wages, financial problems in Russian space industry]