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COSMONAUTS ORBIT EARTH WHILE CHANGES TAKE PLACE AT HOME

When Russia's wandering spacemen return to Earth later this month, they may feel as though they've landed on a different planet.

While Sergei Krikalev has been orbiting his home planet at an altitude of about 400 miles every day for 10 months, his routine in orbit may seem somewhat mundane compared with the changes launched back home.But the Soviet cosmonaut who was shot into space last May and returns as a Russian cosmonaut at the end of this month won't even land in the same country - the Baikonur Cosmodrome is in newly independent Kazakhstan, and the nations that once made up the Soviet Union are making a 180-degree political and economic turn.

As Krikalev chalked up the days inside his space station, Russians took time out from foraging for food and rounding up rubles to wonder whether their wandering cosmonaut would ever come home.

And as Russia looked around the world for help out of its economic abyss, idlers with their heads in the clouds wondered whether Russia would sell the Mir space station, cosmonauts and all, or whether it might need to borrow a little cash for their return fare to Earth.

Nonsense, top cosmonaut Valery Ryumin, says of all the far-out speculation.

Ryumin is a three-time space traveler and, as deputy director of Energiya, the space-science-industrial complex, he oversees manned space flights for the country. He also was a People's Deputy of the Soviet Union, a job that doesn't exist any more.

But even though the country has been sucked into history, the vast Soviet manned space program is sputtering onward and upward, struggling to stay on course and badly in need of cash to fuel it.

Ryumin, nostalgic about the glory days of Soviet space launches when cosmonauts were held in awe, acknowledged that times are tough back on Earth for the Russian space program, but he predicted a "great future" in space.

Just back from the United States and preparing to host American space officials from NASA, Ryumin envisions a future of U.S.-Russian space projects solving environmental problems, such as the ozone hole over the Earth and pushing the outer limits of space exploration to Mars in 20 years.

Still, present problems press on the Russian program like a G-force.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the 11 republics that quickly patched together the Commonwealth of Independent States took time out from their political and economic preoccupations to reach an accord on space.

High up in the "Agreement on Joint Space Exploration and Exploitation" the republics say they "may have their own exploration and exploitation programs."

Ukraine and Azerbaijan didn't wait long before announcing plans for their own space programs, as they did earlier for their own armies. Kazakhstan, which has the major launch site at Baikonur, showed no such interest, though there have been hints that it recognizes the value of the real estate.

Russia announced formation of its own space agency, but it didn't need to - it simply took over the Soviet space program, just as it did so much of the rest of the Soviet Union.

Although cosmonaut training centers and many space facilities are on Russian territory, Russia's Plesetsk launch site is inadequate for manned flights, and vital Baikonur is across a border.

Russia's solution so far is simply to pay for and maintain Baikonur. "Of course, financing is difficult. They give us less than we would like to have," Ryumin said. "Americans always say financing of NASA is not sufficient."

But Russia's financial woes are so serious that Parliament is scraping together money on a quarterly basis. Even though Ryumin scoffs with irritation at suggestions that Russia lacks the cash to bring Krikalev home, he acknowledges they have "located money for one quarter" - the period ending a few days after Krikalev hits Earth - "and we haven't allocated money for the whole year."

"Of course, we are forced to make certain cuts and cannot move forward at the pace we want to," Ryumin said.

While the world worries about the brain drain of Soviet nuclear scientists leaving for better-paying, ill-intentioned countries, Ryumin said he fears space scientists also might land better jobs elsewhere.

"There are proposals, especially from European countries," he said. "Undoubtedly, if there is not sufficient financing, huge scientific collective teams will fall apart and will be very difficult to put together again."

Some members of Parliament blame space and military spending for economic woes besetting the country.

Until recently, Russian space advocates were unsure where their boss stood. "When (Russian President Boris) Yeltsin emerged onto the political scene and became involved in populist actions, he said, `We don't need space.' Now his attitude has changed," Ryumin said. "That's gratifying for us."

Yeltsin recently named a director general for the Russian space agency, and his choice, Yuri Koptev, promised, "We are not going to torpedo either manned flights or scientific projects."

Yeltsin discussed space research with President Bush at Camp David last month, and Ryumin said, "We hope that during his next visit to the United States (the June summit), he'll sign a space cooperation agreement between the United States and Russia."

Energiya directors already are eyeing the United States as a potential partner and a possible Mir space station client. The Russian space firm tried to interest America in the Soyuz spaceship that will fly Krikalev home and also would allow Krikalev to zoom Earthwards in an emergency or any time he wanted, cash shortages or not.

Building a standby "rescue ship" would cost between $2 billion and $4 billion, Ryumin said, adding, salesmanlike, "It would be cheaper to buy one. We have no contract, but we had talks on the subject."

Russia already has a few U.S. clients paying for Mir projects, Ryumin said. He said commercial activity may defray costs, but Russia is not about to privatize its space program in its headlong rush to a market economy.

Germany is helping to foot the bill for the next Baikonur space launch March 17 that will send a German cosmonaut into space with two more Russians. They will dock at the Mir space station on March 19, joining Krikalev and his partner, Alexander Volkov, who has been there since October.

After a week together, Krikalev, Volkov and the German will return to Earth, leaving the two new arrivals on Mir until the next mission in late July.

And so the Soviet, now Russian, space program goes on.

As for Krikalev and Volkov, about once a week word trickles down about what they're up to miles above Earth. They grow crystals in zero gravity. They study their own psychophysiological reactions and motor responses. They have probed the nucleus of a galaxy in the constellation Canis Major, tried to shed light on a massive black hole 60 million light years away, peered down into a violent Phillipine volcano, and walked in space.