Nothing about the multicolored concrete and rusting metal stand that overlooks the reservoir here even faintly hints at advanced technology. Nothing, that is, until the engineer at the Chemical Automatics Design Bureau pushes the right button.
Then a thunderous roar shatters the afternoon calm. Streams of water spurt from hidden nozzles. Steam clouds billow skyward and a blue column of flame -- the signature of a huge engine designed to propel a rocket to the new international space station -- leaps almost the entire length of the structure.
Even 450 feet away, the ground trembles. "That will make an impression on you," said Yuri Shipulin, vice president of the company, as the rumbling from the engine died away after one such test last week.
It is a decidedly mixed impression. The static engine test in this industrial city 12 hours south of Moscow bespeaks Russia's space program in all its majesty, a program still able to design and build engines and rockets as powerful and reliable as any in history. But it also underscores what desperate straits the program is in.
Shipulin had to all but beg for the $94,000 he needed for a railroad car worth of fuel and other testing. He eventually got it, not from Russia's cash-starved government, but from the private profits of the space firm that is building the rockets to lift the station modules into orbit.
It was the same debilitating, exhausting process that confronts every state or private Russian contractor that creates something for the space station, from the ground receivers that will enable astronauts to communicate with Earth to docking equipment for the station to spacesuits.
"To say it spoils my sleep is to put it mildly. Sometimes I don't get to sleep at all," Shipulin said. "Where do we get the money? From whom? How much? For how long? And how to give it back? These are my thoughts at night."
Anxiety is the hallmark of Russia's space program today. The station was to be a glorious new episode in the history of the Russia's ventures into space, a demonstration to the world of both Russia's storied expertise as well as its newfound willingness to work with the West toward a common goal.
Instead, it is turning into yet another symbol of Russia's fall from superpower status. The ruble-short Kremlin simply cannot fund the work, and only by frantic begging and borrowing has Russia so far clung to its position as a primary partner in the project.
Yuri Koptev, head of Russia's space agency, describes the situation as "a very negative one." The government has provided but a tiny fraction of the space budgets of other nations, he said, and "we have not learned how to transform into Jesus Christ who managed to feed thousands of people with several loaves of bread."
Here is what Koptev faces: He has received just $75 million this year to cover $200 million in costs for the project and Russia's orbiting Mir station. The government still owes him $45 million from last year.
In what one Russian project leader called "a gesture of despair," the Russian Space Agency recently sold some of its scientific research time and storage space aboard the station to NASA for $40 million. But it must scrape up still more money to finish and launch the service module, a key component. The launch has been put off three times.
Far more worrisome is what comes next. Russia's expenses escalate substantially once the service module is in orbit. It is obligated to send up rockets to supply the station and keep it from falling out of orbit, control the station from Earth for the first year of its operation and supply spacecraft.
Given the huge costs ahead -- $400 million a year is one estimate -- no one can rule out the possibility that Russia will simply bow out of the project. NASA is making contingency plans to keep the station operating even if that happens.
Every kopek denied the Russian Space Agency ripples throughout an intricate network of 2,000 space station subcontractors. They range from disgruntled to utterly desperate, depending on how heavily they rely on government business.
At the head of the group is the Khrunichev Space Center, which survives on the strength of its business launching commercial satellites, and Energia, a vast, partly government-owned enterprise bigger than the Boeing Co. The government owes Energia so much money it could be considered technically bankrupt, officials there said.
"There is a Russian saying," said Leonid Gorshkov, head of space station design for Energia. " A horrible end is better than no end of horror.' Sometimes it comes to my mind."
How the space station contractors survive is a study in Russian know-how, or the ability to create something from nothing. They borrow from banks at interest rates as high as 60 percent, siphon off profits from commercial projects, put off payments to subcontractors, force workers to wait months for wages, declare unpaid leaves and delay tax payments.
Not knowing when or if the government will provide funding drives them to distraction. "It's like being half-pregnant," said Vitali Svershchek, deputy general director of the Zvezda plant outside Moscow that is making spacesuits for cosmonauts. "It is impossible to live this uncertainty."
Some work is simply stymied.
Moscow Radio Communications Research Institute, for example, has been unable so far to upgrade Russia's ground receivers to ensure reliable communications with the station. Evgeni B. Filimonov, deputy general director, said he ordered the new receivers nine months ago from his subcontractor in St. Petersburg, but that firm refused to start work until Filimonov paid the $60,000 he owes from the last job. But he can't pay until Energia pays the $150,000 it owes him. Now he is refusing to send Energia some equipment. "Partly, it is blackmail," he admitted.
He has reason to press. The gas company wouldn't turn on the heat because his firm hadn't paid the bill. Now the radiators are leaking because they were left cold too long.
Filimonov's worst moments occur when hard-up workers ask when they will be paid. "I always feel so ashamed," he said over coffee in an empty Moscow restaurant on a day when the firm declared unpaid leave. "I am constantly ashamed in front of the people who are under me. It's a bad feeling, really a bad feeling. And after such talks, I always wish to just give up and go."
His firm's board of directors sympathizes. On Nov. 1, when he turned 50, they gave him a present: his July wages.
Whether the financial pressure is hurting the quality of the work is an uncomfortable question. "Yes it does," said Anatoli V. Shishanov, head of the SRI Precise Instruments, which built the docking equipment for the service module. "The probability of all of it being supergood, in these conditions, probably diminishes. Thank God the mistakes will be found in testing."
That is, as long as no one cuts testing to save money, as Shishanov himself occasionally tried to do. He recalled asking one of his head engineers on the space station job: "Couldn't we do it faster? Why don't we stop testing quite so much? Because the quicker we send it off, the quicker we will get our money. And the only thing he would tell me is, Better to keep it longer now, than have trouble in space.' "
Russia's space industry has lost many talented young workers to jobs with more reliable pay, but it has kept a cadre of fiercely committed professionals like Shishanov's engineer. To them, loss of the space station partnership is simply unthinkable, and their gritty determination has kept the work alive longer than many Westerners would think possible.
One such is Sergei Borodin, the chain-smoking chief designer of a firm that designs control boards that link astronauts with spaceship controls. When his cash-short firm couldn't advance him the money for a trip to a test launch in Kazakhstan in August, he paid the $500 out of his own pocket.
Another is Shipulin, the 60-year-old head of the engine design and testing firm, smitten with "the roaring of engines."
"How can you not love it?" he asked after the static engine test. "Those of us who have worked here dozens of years, we are addicted to this roaring. We need the roaring of engines for spiritual balance."
On display at the design bureau are some of the early engines that helped the Russians establish their preeminence in space nearly three decades ago. Neither Shipulin, nor his bosses at the RSA, can believe those days are over.
"We still have it," said Alexei Krasnov, deputy director of RSA's international division. "We have resources, knowledge, experience. And it is really a shame to be in such a situation, when we have all that. The only thing we lack is funds." CAPTION: Russian technicians work on space station's service module, whose launch has been delayed. Once in orbit, it would obligate Russia to huge annual costs. ec