Monday 21 July 2008

The Road to the Stars

Martin Gittins

"Kosmograd was a dream, Colonel. A dream that failed. Like space. We have no need to be here. We have an entire world to put in order. Moscow is the greatest power in history. We must not allow ourselves to lose the global perspective."
- Bruce Sterling, William Gibson - Red Star, Winter Orbit

For years, the location of Baikonur, the site of the Soviet space facility, was unclear. As Robert Oberg, writing in Omni in 1990, explained:

"In an attempt to mislead spy plane pilots, Soviet cartographers three decades ago borrowed the name of the distant town of Baikonur for this space center near Tyuratam. Baikonur was misspelled "Baykonur" when it was taken for the spaceport. Then arriving rocket workers began calling the settlement Zarya, or "Dawn." As it grew it became known as Kosmograd -- Space City. Soon the city was officially named Leninsk."

As the Soviet space program expanded, so did Baikonur, until it spread over a vast area of the steppe of what is now Kazakhstan. In 1960 Gary Powers photographed Baikonur from his U2. Built along the Syr Darya River and between highway and a railway, Leninsk and the Baikonur Cosmodrome is a prototype distributed settlement, a speculative disurbanist city, less planned but perhaps more vividly realised than Magnitogorsk. Mikhail Okhitovich would have been proud.

Whereas Magnitogorsk was a city dedicated to producing steel, Baikonur's was dedicated solely to rocketry and space flight.

At Baikonur, nee Kosmograd, Sergei Korelev, the father of Soviet space program declared, "The Road to the Stars is open".

Jump cut forward, to the late 21st Century. Kosmograd, a floating space station consisting of five docking spheres, each with 3 connected Salyut pods, is a fading, decaying outpost of the Soviet conquest of space. This is the setting of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's masterful short story, Red Star Winter Orbit, also first published in Omni, and part of Gibson's collection of short stories, Burning Chrome. You can read it online here

The protagonist, Colonel Korelev, the first person to set foot on Mars, has been in space 27 years. His bones have withered by the effects of radiation and micro-gravity, and crippled by an injury to his hip, means he can never return to Earth.

As with all great SF short stories, we are given glimpses of the alternate future history that has preceded this moment in time, and left to fill in the gaps.

'"The sun balloons!" cried Grishkin, pointing toward the earth. "Look!" Kosmograd was above the coast of California now, clean shorelines, intensely green fields, vast decaying cities whose names rang with a strange magic. High above a fleece of stratocumulus floated five solar balloons, mirrored geodesic spheres tethered by power lines; they had been a cheaper substitute for a grandiose American plan to build solar-powered satellites. The things worked, Korolev supposed, because for the last decade he'd watched them multiply.'

With the Soviet Union controlling most of the Earth's resources, especially oil, the United States is no longer a dominant economic power on Earth. The Soviets have won the space race, but it is a Pyrrhic victory. Nations have turned inwards and no longer look towards the stars.

Overtaken by Japanese robotic techniques, the manned exploration of space is no longer a project the Party can believe in. Kosmograd is to be put into a decaying orbit, and all its inhabitants returned to Earth.

But General Korelev has been on the station so long his limbs have atrophied, he would not survive re-entry. His destiny is to die aboard Kosmograd.

The story ends with a re-colonisation of Kosmograd by a band of Americans, daringly propelling their floating sun-balloon to the station. In homage to the home-brew hacker activism of Southern California, Kosmograd becomes a new homestead for a new frontierspeople.

The story exhibits the classic prescience that makes Gibson such as great writer, exploring the idea that a space race and the colonisation of space is already an outdated conceit. As always, when Gibson writes he uses the future as a way of reflecting the present.

Jump back to the near past, and the Russian space project lies tattered. Baikonur has become a graveyard of dreams as much as working spaceport.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, and subsequent abandonment of the Buran project (a Soviet version of the Space Shuttle) consigned the idea of a permanent manned Russian space station to the past rather than the future. Only the International Space Station remains, a joint effort between the American, Russian, Japanese, Canadian and European Space Agencies.

The Mir space station, on which Sterling and Gibson's space station is presumably based, was itself put into a decaying orbit in 2001.

On May 12, 2002, one of the hangers at Baikonour, housing a Buran orbiter (the Soviet version of the Space Shuttle) and a mockup of the Energia booster rocket, collapsed due to incomplete maintenance, destroying the vehicle. Eight workers were also killed in the collapse of the building's roof.

In 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed, Sergei Krikalev was effectively marooned on Mir, spending 800 days in space, whilst no-one would take responsibility to bring him back to Earth.

"It was a strange experience in 1991, leaving the Soviet Union and then being brought back down to another country, called Russia, because your old nation had simply ceased to exist."

Krikalev must have felt a lot like Korolev, drifting alone, abandoned, The Last Man in Space.


Blackheath Bugle said...

You suggest that Baikonur is falling into disuse, but I'm fairly sure that most commercial satellites are sent up from there.

If you want to read stories about the Soviet space stations that will make your eyes pop out on stalks, can I suggest "Red Star in Orbit" by James Oberg. It's out of print, but can be picked up second hand. Truly astonishing stuff - cosmonauts dealing with leaky pipes, green mould building up on the inside of windows, fires on board, begging to be sent home only to be refused, etc.

But the book is far from critical of how the cosmonauts handle the space station, and makes interesting comparisons between the US and USSR's approaches.

I've visited the Cosmonaut Museum in Moscow a few years ago. What an amazing place. No flat screens displaying puff pieces about space heroes - just a few pensioners selling tickets, and standing about. It was so quiet, and yet, there behind a rope was Laika's dog space suit. And Gagarin's shoes, space suit, and anything else they could find of his! Not to mention actual space modules, AND their user manuals. I highly recommend a visit.

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