By Michael Goldstein
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By LA Weekly
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For the American team a successful mission would represent a triumph of independent entrepreneurial spirit. Even more so on the Russian side. Babakin scientists are hoping that Cosmos 1 will pave the way for a new industry of cheap space launches. The technology they have developed can carry up to 700 kilograms into low Earth orbit. According to the Babakin Web site, it is estimated that by the end of the decade, 60 percent of all the world’s space launches will be small lightweight satellites. The Russians believe that with converted ICBMs they can slash the price of a small-scale launch to less than a third of the going rate, currently around $25 million.
Launching from a submarine means the Planetary Society has had to deal not only with several Russian space agencies but also the nation’s navy. Friedman says they have been a delight — helpful, efficient and supremely pragmatic. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian state agencies have had to become good little capitalist enterprises, contractors for hire in between their government work. And have they got a deal for you! The Russians have agreed to deliver the sail into space for a fixed contract price — missile, sub, the whole nine yards for just $4 million. “You can’t get much for that in the U.S.,” Friedman tells me. “We could never have afforded to build this ourselves.” Druyan, the New Yorker, knows a bargain when she sees one. “When Lou first called me,” she says, “he offered me an opportunity to be part of space history for basically the price of a nice Manhattan apartment.”
BACK AT THE PLANETARY SOCIETY, I am eager to see the POP command center for myself, and Friedman leads the way to a neat bungalow by the side of the house. The whole setup looks like nothing so much as a junior high science-fair project. Two desktop computers, later to be supplemented by a third, hold sway in a room that boasts little more than a whiteboard, a conference table and a photomontage of the history of flight — from the Wright brothers and Amelia Earhart to Neil Armstrong’s moon walk and the Mars rover. A homemade model of the Cosmos 1 swings overhead like a cheap New Age mobile.
For one brief moment I don’t know whether to laugh or cheer. But really, it’s no contest. At a time when NASA has spent $152 million cleaning up the mess and working out what went wrong in the Columbia disaster, there is something insanely great about this string-and-sealing-wax venture. Held together with spit and a prayer and good old Russian know-how, the world’s first solar sail could not be a more perfect embodiment of the DIY tradition that propelled Orville and Wilbur into the skies on a maiden flight that lasted a mere 12 seconds. Friedman hopes that Cosmos 1’s voyage will be somewhat longer than that — days or weeks if they are lucky — but in the end he’ll be over the moon if they can simply prove the concept. The craft will be fitted with accelerometers, and any motion at all will constitute a mission success.
When this ICBM breaks the waves and heads into space with its butterfly-wing payload, one hopes that Congress is paying close attention. At present, NASA is forbidden from entering into these kinds of partnerships. Under the terms of the Iran Non-Proliferation Act, which, Sagdeev explains, was designed to punish Russia for supposedly supplying ballistic missiles to Iran, NASA cannot engage in collaborative projects that would require sending money to any Russian space agency. An exception would be a life-threatening emergency — if, say, there were astronauts stranded at the International Space Station.
It’s an absurd situation, Sagdeev believes. The Russians have know-how but no money; the Americans have money, but judging by NASA’s recent string of failures, they could do with some technological help. It’s not just that salaries are lower in Russia, Sagdeev says, “It’s also the style of working. The Russian space program is a lot more cost efficient.” Sagdeev feels the two nations should be working more closely together. The Europeans have had no such qualms about teaming up with former Soviet agencies, and, according to Sagdeev, the U.S. is rapidly losing its edge in space. The Russians would love to get together with their U.S. colleagues, he says. “You guys need our help.”
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