Kazak deal saves Russian space mission

July 23, 1999

Kazak astronaut Talgat Musabayev is to command a Russian mission on a new Soyuz-TMA spacecraft in October 2000.

The announcement coincided with an agreement ending the row between Kazakhstan and Russia over payment for the lease of the Kazak Baykonur launch site.

The row culminated in a moratorium on Russian launches from Baykonur on July 5, ostensibly because of the environmental damage caused by the crash of a Proton rocket. Agreement means Russia can resume service flights needed to correct the course of the ailing Mir space station and reduce the risk that it will crash to earth next spring instead of burning in the atmosphere.

John Zarnecki, reader in space science at the University of Kent, said: "There have been a lot of difficulties in the Russian space programmes arising from financial and political instability. Co-operation with the Russians is therefore problematic.

"The challenges of designing and building space instrumentation pales in comparison with the problems of schedules, finance and post-Soviet politics.

"Large scientific instruments built by western teams for Russian missions have effectively had to be mothballed because of launch schedule problems.

"Of course, it can be rewarding, and in the past Mir has offered many opportunities. Five or six years ago, Kent, through the European Space Agency, and in co-operation with French colleagues, built an instrument that was taken up to Mir and exposed to space and collected cosmic dust and space debris."

Kazakhstan has been unhappy at Russia's reluctance to pay $115 million a year rent and a tendency to treat the site as an enclave. More than 40 years of launch debris is scattered over the steppes. Environmentalists claim that 5,000 square kilometres of Kazakhstan has been polluted by heptyl, a poisonous component of fuel from the failed Proton rocket.

The only damage acknowledged by the Russians was the loss of 500 hectares of pasture. A joint Russian-Kazak official communique reported no trace of heptyl.

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