clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Sputnik's 40th anniversary not marked by celebration

Forty years ago, the Soviet Union opened the space age with the launch of a beeping satellite the size of a beach ball from a desert outpost in what was then the Soviet republic of Kazakstan.

But Saturday's anniversary of that first Sputnik launch was not marked by celebrations or glorious speeches. Instead, in an embarrassing sign of the times, Kazak President Nursultan Nazarbayev complained that Russia has not paid its rent.He said Russia owes Kazakstan $460 million for four years' rent on the Baikonur cosmodrome - site of the Sputnik launch and many other space milestones.

"We have not received anything yet," Nazarbayev said Saturday after a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in the Kazak capital of Almaty.

It was a sure sign of how far the mighty Soviet - and, later, Russian - space program has fallen.

When Sputnik was launched, on Oct. 4, 1957, it marked the first time that a manmade object had been sent into Earth's orbit. Sputnik didn't really do anything - just went around and around, sending "beep, beep" signals by radio - but it profoundly changed human history.

Then, at the height of the Cold War, there were no worries about money - both the Soviet Union and the United States were committed to spending whatever it took to gain dominance in space.

Nor did the Soviet Union have to worry about paying rent for Baikonur, then just a collection of railroad cars in the desert of Soviet Central Asia.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia agreed to lease the cosmodrome from newly independent Kazakstan for its manned space launches.

Russia still regularly launches satellites, increasingly for commercial clients, and has maintained its manned space program in the form of the Mir space station.

But Mir's recent troubles - the collision with a cargo ship and repeated computer failures that temporarily disabled the station - have given the agency a black eye.

The government has also had difficulty funding the space program, and a long-planned international space station has been delayed because of Russia's inability to fund a key component. And now Russia faces the unlikely prospect of eviction from its historic launch site.

Nazarbayev said at a joint news conference that he understood the financial problems facing the Kremlin, but he had to face questions from his own parliament.

"It cannot go on like this," he said. "We have to resolve these problems."