Russia's Satan Soars For Peaceful Profit
I saw Satan soar into the heavens as an angel of light Tuesday. And it was carrying three American communications satellites to put into orbit.
Just after High Noon Tuesday, I saw the fourth successful launch of the new Russian-Ukrainian Dneper booster from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan in Central Asia.
Dneper carried a payload cluster of no fewer than eight satellites - three U.S. communications ones, three Saudi Arabian communications ones, and two research ones from Italy and France built under the auspices of the European Space Agency.
The launch was another low-key, understated triumph, the kind of thing that Baikonur, the very first cosmodrome, or spaceport, in human history has long been famous for.
But the officials of Russia's Federal Space Agency had special cause for self-congratulation. Their Dnepr booster, first unveiled in 1999, looks set to be a commercial winner.
Four have now been launched successfully. Dnepr's reliability rate is currently 97 percent, and no fewer than 150 more of them are ready to go up during the next six years.
For the 100-foot, 210-ton, three-stage launch vehicle has for the last quarter-century been known to U.S. and NATO planners under a very different name. Designated RS-20 by its designers in the old Soviet Union, it was known to NATO by the code-number SS-18 and the code-name Satan.
That frightening appellation was not given lightly. For Satan was a crusher of cities and slayer of civilizations. The giant rocket boasted up to 10 Multiple Independently-Targeted Reentry Vehicles, or MIRVs, each of which would have a carried a hydrogen bomb thermonuclear warhead to incinerate a different North American or Western European city. Even more terrifying, some of them were believed to have been fitted with aerosol warheads to spray smallpox virus over their U.S. targets.
But now in the very different world that has followed the end of the Cold War, while deadly new enemies have arisen to threaten civilization, the fearful SS-18 Satan intercontinental ballistic missile has been transformed into a symbol of peace and a highly practical example of East-West commercial cooperation.
To the American, European and Saudi space executives and scientists who breathed a collective sigh of relief at Tuesday's Baikonur launch of eight satellites, the Dnepr booster that is really a recycled and only slightly adapted SS-18 is not Satan but a Godsend.
With the Space Shuttle still grounded, the new generation of American boosters still being developed, and demand for reliable launching rockets building up around the world, the prospect of having a huge already-constructed supply of giant boosters built by the most experienced and reliable rocket engineers on earth has been embraced around the world.
The irony of the rocket's new popularity has not been lost on the veteran space engineers of Baikonur. America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration, their old rival of 4½ decades, is now grounded despite annual approval of budgets of close to $20 billion. NASA operates as a semi-socialist bureaucracy in a nation dedicated to capitalism, and it is currently failing at its job.
By contrast, the Russian space program has survived, and its rocket construction companies are now prospering because they have been able to adapt so quickly and so well to the international free market.
The high-tech international marketplace, it turned out, didn't want science-fiction looking space shuttles that weren't safe, were too expensive to launch and couldn't do the job. For that matter, they didn't want the Soviet Union's ambitious old Buran space shuttle and its colossal Energia booster with its 100-ton payload either.
I'm not sure if anyone even needs the Energia booster anymore, Nurgazev Ergazi Meiralevich, the special envoy of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, told United Press International. "Right now, there's no need for it.
All those clever people, they created the Rocket of the Future. But there is no need for it at this time.
By contrast, the SS-18 Satan, the unparalleled weapon of mass destruction that preoccupied the strategists of the West for so long, finds itself in unprecedented demand among the very people it was designed to terrorize and even annihilate - the high-tech business tycoons of the West.
That was why Tuesday's launch was an occasion, not of terror or fear, but of pride and hope.
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