MOSCOW, FEB. 5 -- Unless you have completely tired of hard-luck stories from the former Soviet Union, spare a thought for the plight of Cosmonaut 3rd Class Sergei Krikalev.
Blasted into space 261 days ago by a country that no longer exists, Krikalev is now wondering when the successor states to the communist superpower will arrange his long-delayed return home. Once a week, he is allowed to chat with his wife, Lena, to find out how she is making out on his less-than-cosmic monthly salary of 500 rubles ($2.50 at the free-market exchange rate) at a time when prices have gone through the stratosphere. But otherwise he spends his time spinning uselessly around the globe, 16 times a day, trying to repair his "leaky" space station.
Back on Earth, meanwhile, the lads at Mission Control are threatening to go on strike over their miserable wages, a development that could further delay Krikalev's homecoming. The viability of what was once the world's most ambitious space program has been undermined by budget cuts and political squabbles among the former Soviet republics. There is even some doubt over whether the famed Baikonur Cosmodrome -- the Russian Cape Canaveral -- belongs to the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States or Kazakhstan.
In the old days, Krikalev could at least have been confident of a hero's welcome when he finally did make it back home. But times have changed, and the suddenly unfettered Russian press has adopted a tone of commiseration to chronicle the exploits of the 34-year-old homesick cosmonaut -- when, that is, it bothers to report them at all. "The Man Who Is Sick of Flying" read this week's headline in the former communist youth newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda.
"A human race sent its son off to the stars to fulfill a concrete set of tasks. But hardly had he left Earth than it lost interest in those tasks, for worldly and completely explicable reasons. And it started to forget about its cosmonaut. It did not even fetch him back at the appointed time, again for completely worldly reasons," the newspaper wrote.
During the nine months Krikalev has been aboard the orbiting Mir space station, a few changes have taken place on Earth that have complicated his original mission. First there was the abortive coup by hard-line communists in August that resulted in the banning of the political party to which cosmonauts -- as exemplary Soviet citizens -- were required to belong. Then the Soviet Union itself collapsed, placing a large question mark over the future of the space program.
Unbeknown to him, Krikalev became a pawn in a dispute between Russia and Kazakhstan that cost him his original ticket home in October. When the newly sovereign Kazakhs demanded huge fees for the use of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Moscow wangled a discount by naming the first-ever Kazakh cosmonaut. Kazakhstan's national self-esteem soared, but Krikalev's spirits sank when he learned that he would not be replaced. The Kazakh, it seems, did not have the qualifications to spend an extended period in outer space.
In the meantime, the space agency Glavkosmos has been doing its best to raise "hard" Western currency to supplement its increasingly worthless ruble budget. A place on last October's mission to link up with Mir was sold to Austria for $7 million. In December 1990, a Japanese TV network paid $12 million to send one of its reporters on a Soviet spacecraft, billing him as the "world's first outer space correspondent."
At one point, there were even suggestions that Glavkosmos was eager to sell the Mir space station -- launched six years ago to a fanfare of propaganda trumpets -- to the Americans. But NASA showed little interest and nothing came of the overtures.
The space agency can now barely afford to send supply craft 240 miles outside the Earth's atmosphere to keep Krikalev and fellow cosmonaut Sergei Volkov (who arrived in October) stocked with breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Requests for anything remotely exotic can be a major problem. When Krikalev developed a craving for lemons last fall, Mission Control was unable to find any in state shops. Austrian cosmonaut Franz Fiebek saved the day by buying some lemons in a special hard-currency shop geared to the needs of Western tourists.
Glavkosmos managed to round up some of its own lemons to send on the latest supply mission, which docked with the space station last week. It also sent up generous portions of horseradish and fresh onions but was unable to satisfy Krikalev's latest craving -- for honey.
"It is difficult to get high-quality honey," said Valery Polyakov, deputy director of the Medical and Biological Institute in charge of space menus. "We used to get honey from the former Soviet republics, but they have stopped deliveries. This is not our fault."
A former cosmonaut himself, Polyakov told the Tass news agency that he was sympathetic to Krikalev's plight. He conceded that the lack of vitamins could complicate the cosmonaut's "rehabilitation" when he finally returns to Earth, but he denied reports by ham radio operators that Krikalev is in bad health.
Under normal circumstances, the Mir space station would not be such a bad place for a Russian citizen to find himself stranded, offering better facilities than the average Moscow apartment block. Designed to accommodate up to 12 cosmonauts, it includes individual sleeping compartments, home video equipment, a shower and even a gym, complete with an exercise bicycle and a chest expander.
It now seems that the earliest date that Krikalev can expect to reach his new homeland -- the Russian Federation -- is next month. A joint Russian-German space mission has been scheduled for March, but it could still be called off at the last moment for budgetary reasons.
When Krikalev is finally reunited with his wife and their baby daughter, Olya, he will have quite a lot of catching up to do on what exactly has been taking place on the planet Earth in his absence. In order to save money, Mission Control has cut back its communications links with the space station. There have also been political reasons for keeping the cosmonaut in the dark.
During August's coup, when it was unclear which side was going to win, Krikalev had difficulty extracting information from Mission Control. He finally received a briefing from ham radio operators in Western countries.