Who wants to be a cosmonaut? Not many, according to this article at MSNBC.com, “Cosmonaut careers are losing their luster”. Also commented on at Slashdot: The Incredible Shrinking Cosmonaut Corps. There was one rather dismaying comment by a “PeterAitch”:
I’ve just come back from Korolev (aka Space City) as a paying guest of Energia Corporation. I was there with some 17-18 year olds for the “Space Olympics”, an annual international event where the Russians are trying very hard to enthuse the next generation about Space Exploration in general. At the same time, they are making shed-loads of money out of their "guests": very New Russia.
Having met five cosmonauts (4 active; 1 retired) on this trip, it’s my impression that they are all still struggling to some extent to come to terms with life in modern Russia. Mostly in their late 40’s or early 50’s, they seemed tired and somewhat cynical, or even bored with the endless PR. Many of the technical support people have baled out, either to administrative jobs within the same sector or elsewhere completely. There was a definite “Soviet” feel to the trip, as our Russian hosts have not made a complete psychological transition from the old ways when they were truly elite. For example, we were not permitted to visit any working churches (e.g. St Basil’s in Red Square) and they kept driving us round and round Moscow to ensure that we ran out of time rather than allow this visit. Lenin’s mausoleum was, naturally, “highly recommended” (i.e. mandatory).
Even so, most of those in Space City proper (which strictly is a separate part of the much bigger city of Korolev) are still an elite by Russian standards. They have bigger apartments – twice the average floorspace – and much better shops. The best schools (e.g. Lyceum No. 11) are eye-opening for someone from the UK educational system. Although not amazingly lavish in terms of resources (although still good), the attainment of their top students is awesome. Their performance in science, mathematics, foreign languages and performing arts was extremely impressive.
On the other hand, traffic is utterly chaotic, the food was mostly appalling and their organisation (general, rather than specialist) was quite poor. Medical care was surprisingly cursory (I fell ill during the visit) and they certainly don’t trust the banking system – I had to go to the airport exchange booths in the middle of the night to cash travellers’ cheques to pay them in CASH for our visit. (Very unsettling for someone from the West!)
There are certainly enough technically-minded young Russians (and Kazakhstanis) around to keep the system supplied with cosmonauts – at least within a few years’ time. They currently fund specialist scholarships to Moscow State University and have a range of other incentives. Crucially, they are all still very proud of their long legacy of cosmonautics (edited for deaths and maimings, inevitably) and it was a real thrill even for me to be able to physically grab hold of Yuri Gagarin’s re-entry capsule, which is displayed with loads of other hardware in Energia’s museum.
Then again, when the Russo-American-European ISS has become the world’s highest advertising platform with this recent golf-drive stunt, who can really be sure what the future holds for science and scientists? When I trained 30 years ago, I never really expected to end up teaching young adults, even when moving towards the sunset of my working life.
The Australian team actually won the “Space Olympics” he is referring to! The competition is mentioned at the Scouts Australia site, the results here and there is a site for the American students. The students appeared to have had a great time, at least! And how I envy them, and wish I was young again!