The People’s Capsule

How a clunky old Soviet rocket outlasted the space shuttle.

When Michael Barratt, a NASA flight surgeon, arrived at the Russian cosmonaut training facility at Star City in 1993, the space program that once lofted Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin into orbit was at its lowest ebb since the U.S. moon landing. The storefronts in the enclave nestled in the boreal forest 20 miles outside Moscow were mostly closed, their shelves empty of food. The soldiers guarding the compound, Barratt recalls, were for a time receiving their paychecks in the form of surplus canned salmon. “A lot of our Russian co-workers hadn’t been paid in months,” he recalls.

It seemed an ignominious end for what had once been the most advanced space agency in the world. But if Russia lost the space race during the Cold War, today the country is about to take the lead, however temporarily, in the space marathon. When the last U.S. space shuttle touches down in Florida this year, it will leave behind in orbit the International Space Station, an 11-year, almost-completed construction project that the United States — which has paid $48.5 billion of the expected $100 billion tab so far — and other countries hope to keep using for at least another decade. But how to get there? U.S. President Barack Obama wants to pour $6 billion over the next five years into commercial transportation to and from orbit, bankrolling companies he claims will be “competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable.” But whether they can pull it off remains an open question, and in any case their rockets are years away from being astronaut-ready. The Chinese have launched a few manned test flights, and India hopes to do so by 2016, but for now both are strictly minor league.

That leaves just one option: an unglamorous rocket and capsule called the Soyuz — “Union” — that the Russians have been using to blast cosmonauts into space for nearly half a century. Starting next year, U.S. astronauts trying to reach the space station will have to book a flight to Star City first.

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