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#8 - JRL 7211
Financial Times (UK)
June 5, 2003
Russian space programme makes virtue of simplicity
By Clive Cookson

Keep it simple. And if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Those sayings - or their Russian equivalent - explain why Russia's space programme has survived while so many state enterprises from the Soviet period have almost collapsed.

Although the glorious era of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin is long gone, Baikonur Cosmodrome remains the world's busiest launch site. On Monday night, a Soyuz rocket sent Europe's Mars Express spacecraft on a 400m km interplanetary voyage. On Saturday, a Proton rocket is due to put the AMC-9 communications satellite into orbit, and on Sunday another Soyuz will launch a supply vessel to the International Space Station.

Yet Baikonur endures serious political and geographical handicaps compared with other leading space centres such as Cape Canaveral in Florida and Kourou in French Guiana.

When the Soviet Union broke up in the early 1990s, Baikonur found itself in a suspicious Kazakhstan. Although Russia has negotiated a rolling 10-year lease for the 6,700 sq km Baikonur site, relations remain tense. There are constant irritations, such as the intrusive immigration and customs requirements imposed by the Kazakhs on everyone arriving from Moscow.

The geographical obstacle is insuperable. An ideal launch centre is on the coast in the tropics. There is a significant performance penalty in launching communications satellites into orbit around the equator from Baikonur, at a latitude of 45 degrees north. The extreme climate creates operational problems, with temperatures swinging from a winter minimum of -40C to 45C in summer. Early stages of rockets cannot fall into the ocean; they land instead on the steppes of central Asia - not ideal from a safety or environmental point of view.

The key to Baikonur's operations is the continued use of proven procedures and cost-effective technology - much of it developed more than 40 years ago - says Franois Maroqune, vice-president of Starsem, a Russian-European company marketing Soyuz launches. Soyuz has flown 1,677 times since 1966 without a fundamental redesign, and has achieved a reliability rate of 98 per cent, better than any other rocket family.

Fernando Doblas, the European Space Agency's chief representative in French Guiana, says he has learnt the "virtue of simplicity" from his visit to Baikonur this week for the Mars Express launch. The experienced workforce knows exactly what to do, when.

The Russian space industry spends little on research and development - and even less making its facilities neat. Much of Baikonur looks like a post-apocalypse film set, strewn with abandoned buildings. Abandoned launch pads and rusting gantries rise from the drab brown steppe.

But the mission-critical parts are well maintained. From the outside, Building 112 at Baikonur looks like a gigantic semi-derelict grey hulk; the launch facilities inside, where rockets are coupled to their payloads, are immaculately clean. "If something is painted, you know it is available for launch," said Mr Maroqune. "Everything else is rusty."

Western investment is helping to maintain the critical facilities. In addition to the Starsem Soyuz partnership with the European Aeronautic Defence and Space company (EADS) and Arianespace, Russia is working with Lockheed Martin of the US.

The presence of Europeans and Americans has removed the atmosphere of secrecy of the Soviet era. Security is now more relaxed and anything is fair game for photography.

On the day Mars Express went up, guards allowed visitors to approach within 20 metres of Soyuz on its launch pad. Visitors were able to get within touching distance of the next Soyuz waiting to be joined to the Progress supply vessel it will send to the Space Station.

Although Starsem plans to transfer some commercial Soyuz launches to Kourou, everyone at Baikonur believes the site has a promising future.

"Nowhere else in the world has such a good space infrastructure in place," said Eric Laursen, chief engineer of International Launch Services, "and the cost of duplicating it elsewhere would be prohibitive."

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