The Soviet Union is poised to seize the lead in the industrial exploitation of space, Western experts believe.
At a time when Britain is refusing to increase its spending on space research Russia is planning kilometre-wide mirrors in space to light cities and boost crops.
The first stage of the plan is only 10 years away. A later phase, planned for 2002, will develop giant solar-cell power stations, sending hundreds of megawatts of power down infra-red laser beams.
The ambitious Soviet space plan is aimed at solving the world’s energy and pollution problems, giving the world access to the unlimited mineral and energy resources of space. It would remove the threat of another Chernobyl nuclear disaster by making ground-based power generation obsolete.
Although some Western space scientists are sceptical of the more optimistic Soviet claims, a detailed analysis of Soviet achievements reveals their single-minded determination to develop space as a wealth-creating resource.
A Pounds 20 billion rocket, Energia, puts these plans within reach. It has already been successfully test flown.
On May 15 it took off from the Soviet Union’s Tyuratam space complex and began a new era of space exploitation – an era to which, at the moment, the Russians alone have the key.
The new rocket performed perfectly, according to Soviet sources, and will raise 270 tonnes into orbit at one go in its fully developed form.
Energia is 200 feet tall and can lift the equivalent of nine US space shuttle flights. Its eight main engines produce 170 million horsepower and are far ahead of any Western rocket engines in sophistication.
It has the capacity to launch large, permanent laboratories on their way to Mars and the moon and to establish orbiting space factories on a huge scale. The Russians claim they will soon have the ability to launch hundreds of thousands of tons of material into space each year from three giant launch pads.
Only the much smaller British Hotol (horizontal take-off and landing) spaceplane – in which Britain’s stake is now in jeopardy – offers anything comparable. But Hotol will lift only eight tons instead of Energia’s 270 tons.
Energia can also launch a space station 78 times higher than any manned earth satellite has ever been before, 22,500 miles high where satellites hover over one half of the earth far below and is ideal for surveillance.
Mr Alan Bond, designer of the Hotol engine, head of space propulsion at the UK Atomic Energy Authority at Culham and rocket expert at Commercial Space Technologies, Britain’s leading space consultants, told The Times: ‘My colleagues and I are convinced from studying Russian space research published by many of their leading experts, that the Russians are now years ahead along the path to space industralization and poised to gain benefits which would give them economic leadership of the world.
‘From our researchers emerges a consistent picture that back in 1975 the Russians abandoned any idea of a space race with America and switched instead to a very long-term economic project. ‘The Americans still do not believe it all. They cannot seem to conceive that anything important can happen outside the US, but the USSR program has clearly been worked through thoroughly. Their rockets may look crude but under the casing they are years ahead in engine performance.’
Some experts believe that the American Star Wars announcement was an initial reaction to the first clues of the Soviet space masterplan but Mr Bond said: ‘I think that Star Wars resulted from a misinterpretation of the vast work the Russians have been doing on lasers in recent years. They have assumed a military intention was the main thurst, but it is not, it is an economic health issue.’
A measure of the intensity of Soviet activities can be seen in the 1986 launch figures: 103 missions from all nations reached Earth orbit. Ninety-one were Russian.
The Russians now have many firsts. They have transferred crews from one space station to another, broken endurance records again and again, done pioneering work on the effects of weightless-ness, and have been practicing docking, undocking, spacewalks, and repairing and resupplying spacecraft.
‘The Russians are now the only show in town’, Mr Garry Hunt, space business manager for the PA Consulting Group in London, says.
‘They have been developing a huge program for more than a decade and are now embarrassing the West very badly indeed.