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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Manned Missions Too Costly, Says Ex-Cosmonaut

After a lifetime of sending Russians into space and taking a trip into orbit himself, a retired Russian space engineer has made a down-to-earth conclusion: Russia is too poor to continue its manned space flight program.

Konstantin Feoktistov, 70, was a member of the team that designed the Vostok spaceship on which cosmonaut Yury Gagarin blazed a trail into history books with the first manned space flight 35 years ago Friday. He orbited the earth three years after Gagarin and worked in Russia's space program from its inception through the era of the now-abandoned Buran space shuttle program.

But the retired engineer, cosmonaut and professor, who helped the Soviet Union take its first steps in the space race, would now like to see the new, cash-strapped Russia take a great step backward.

"We need a lot of money for a lot of things," Feoktistov said. "For the army, for culture, for science, for social needs. But our purse is almost empty. The economy is in shambles. So I say: Let's not throw money into space."

Feoktistov also scorned Russia's obligation to help fund the international Alpha space station -- a joint project with the United States, the European Space Agency, Japan and Canada that is scheduled to replace Russia's Mir station at the beginning of the next century.

"This alliance with the Americans," he said, "is an effort of our military-industrial complex to spend a lot of money -- now under the banner of cooperation with the United States. We have to live up to agreements and so we have to spend money."

Champions of the nation's space program may well disagree with Feoktistov's strategy to save Russia. But they cannot dispute that they come from someone who has already demonstrated an innate and keen sense of survival.

As a 16-year-old Red Army scout in World War II, Feoktistov was captured by Germans and put before a firing squad. During the night, he crawled from under his comrades' dead bodies and escaped back to his own army.

In the 1950s, he became an engineer and designer on the team of the legendary Sergei Korolyov. The outspoken Feoktistov often collided with the architect of the Soviet space program, most notably when he told Korolyov that he was "categorically against" adapting the Vostok capsule into a version capable of carrying three cosmonauts into orbit.

"In Vostok we had a very good escape system: the ejection seat," he said. "Should something go wrong during launch, the cosmonaut could eject himself."

The new version, he said, made it impossible for three cosmonauts to eject. "If there would have been a problem during launch, we would not have survived."

Feoktistov, who was at the time working on designing the Soyuz rocket, suggested that Korolyov scrap the proposal and wait for the rollout of the safer Soyuz, which is now the workhorse of the Soviet space program.

Korolyov responded by ordering Feoktistov off to cosmonaut's training. "I understand he did not say this just to please me, but to get rid of an opponent," he recalled. "I shouted, 'Thank You!' and ran home to tell the news."

And so a cosmonaut was born.

After successfully completing the Soviet Union's seventh manned space flight in October 1964, Feoktistov began working on a program to beat the Americans in putting the first man on the moon. He continued his design work, and was awarded Hero of Soviet Labor and Order of Lenin medals.

Feoktistov said he was never in favor of manned lunar missions, because he thought the country was not ready for it.

As for keeping Russian cosmonauts in orbit around the earth, Feoktistov is, in principle, for the idea -- as long as it does not come at the expense of the folks back on the ground. "Cooperation is the right course. There's no question about that," he said. "But our country at this moment cannot or should not allow itself to invest money in space."