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Aiming for Arkalyk

Why cosmonauts returning from space face a chilly reception.

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This ain’t Cape Canaveral, pal.  The place is what passes for an airport in Kustanai, Kazakhstan; the date, February 19, 1998.  The temperature is -13 degrees Fahrenheit, cold enough to hurt your face the second you turn toward the wind.  Cold enough for men to freeze to death if, say, rescuers can’t find the space capsule that just brought them back to Earth.

A motley collection of two dozen Russian space professionals and aficionados—scientists, doctors, cameramen, parliamentary staffers—cling to the edge of an air strip despite the weather.  They stare off into the board-flat central Asian steppe, as if a determined eye could cover the 250 miles to where three cosmonauts already should have touched down.  General Yuri Glazkov, a spaceflight veteran himself who looks like a fireplug and sounds like a bullhorn, is rallying the faithful in his own inimitable fashion.  “Whoever is cold didn’t drink enough,” he bellows.  Beneath the bluster, though, Glazkov, deputy director of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, is worried about his men.

Here at Kustanai the afternoon sun is brilliant.  But at the landing site a blizzard is raging.  Wind gusts across the naked steppe at up to 60 mph.  Visibility is virtually zero.  This is how Mother Earth has seen fit to welcome back three space travelers—Russians Anatoly Solovyev and Pavel Vinogradov and Frenchman Leopold Eyharts—after a long, stressful repair mission on the Mir space station.  Normally, 30 or 40 people would be on hand to greet them at the landing site.  But the weather is so treacherous that only one helicopter with essential crew members has been dispatched from Kustanai for the rescue.  All that the rest of us can do is wait.

It has been 27 years since Russia lost a cosmonaut returning to orbit—June 1971, when rescuers opened the Soyuz 11 capsule to find its three-man crew dead, victims of a blown valve that vented their oxygen supply to space.  Over a decade has passed since a returning capsule missed its target by more than a dozen miles.  Soyuz landings have become like U.S. space shuttle landings—routine and for the most part trouble-free.

Yet today is the nastiest landing weather anyone on hand can remember.  No one is breathing easy until Solovyev and Vinogradov—Tolya and Pasha, as they are known within this intimate group—and their French companion are home in one piece.

Once a whole country would have shared in the suspense.  But gone are the days when Soviet space landings drew crowds of air marshals and ministers, when the nation was glued to the radio for news, when swooning schoolgirls begged handsome cosmonauts for autographs.  The small group of die-hards who set forth yesterday from the cosmonauts’ home base in Star City outside Moscow has more the feel of a community picnic—one mistakenly planned for the height of a hurricane.

Reaching Kustanai has been a minor adventure in itself.  We non-essential personnel (the rescue team flew ahead separately) made the journey in the cosmonaut retrieval airplane, a custom-equipped Tupolev Tu-154 with railcar-style sleeping compartments replacing half the seats.  On the morning of our departure from Star City’s Chkalovskoye military airport, Mike Baker, the four-time U.S. shuttle astronaut who now heads NASA’s liaison office for human spaceflight in Russia, drove up to the runway late, grinning excessively for such an early hour.  “These people are crazy,” he muttered to Herve Stevenin, director of crew training for the French space agency.  “We were already drinking vodka in the car over here.”

Down in Kazakhstan the tempest had already begun, shutting down the airport at Kustanai, a two-and-a-half-hour flight to the southeast.  We briefly placed our hope in two airfields farther south, near Baikonur, the cosmonauts’ launch site.  But neither location, as it turned out, had electricity.  The local Kazakh utility, unsentimental about past greatness, had cut them off for non-payment.

With the news Glazkov left in an atmospheric huff and was gone for two hours.  After “titanic efforts,” he explained on his return, he had managed to cadge a landing slot at Karaganda, a heavy industrial center an hour east of Kustanai.  “At least we know a hotel there,” enthused Igor Rudyayev, the cosmonaut training center’s PR man for the journey.  “Sometimes we have to sleep in the plane.”

By noon the next day, just three hours before the cosmonauts were due to land, Kustanai finally gave arrival clearance, and our airplane revved toward the Karaganda runway for takeoff.  Ex-Soviet friendship broke down again at this point, though.  Airport officials boarded the craft demanding a $400 landing fee.  Glazkov let forth a predictable stream of barracks Russian, but after an hour of dickering he paid up.

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