Originally created 08/14/97

Docking for dollars



MOSCOW (AP) - Cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyov switched his Soyuz capsule to manual control as he approached the Mir space station, then guided the ships into a gentle embrace - and earned himself a cash bonus.

The Russian space program has an elaborate bonus system that includes not only general hazardous-duty pay, but specific payments for such tasks as spacewalks and manual dockings.

By switching from the automated docking system to manual, Solovyov should pocket an extra $1,000 when he returns to Earth in 61/2 months, according to the Russian daily Kommersant, one of several Russian news outlets that have reported specific amounts.

Russian and American space officials agreed that Solovyov's decision to go manual last week was the best way to get the job done. But the episode highlights the unusual reward system, which Russian news media say also pays $1,000 for each spacewalk.

The average pay for cosmonauts is about $3,000 per month in orbit. The new Russian crew, Solovyov and Pavel Vinogradov, could earn as much again in bonuses and finish their mission with a $40,000 paycheck, media reports say. The bonus money is in performing up to six spacewalks and vital repair work on the Mir's damaged Spektr module.

The sums involved may not sound like much, but Russians earn only about $200 a month on average. Also, Russian media report all the figures in U.S. dollars, suggesting the astronauts will be paid in American currency, which is much preferred to rubles.

NASA astronauts, who are considered U.S. government employees, earn between $48,000 and $103,000 a year, depending on their years with the government and past promotions. Astronauts on Mir receive only their regular 40-hour-a-week pay - no overtime, comp time or bonuses, according to NASA spokeswoman Eileen Hawley.

For the cash-strapped Russian space program, the bonuses reflect the importance placed on the mission to fix the ailing, 11-year-old Mir.

The Russians want to keep it aloft two more years, partly out of pride and partly because it generates cash from the Americans and other countries that send up space visitors. The Americans are paying the Russian space program $473 million over five years, with much of the money going to rent space on the Mir for American astronauts.

Perks are not limited to the space program in Russia or other former Soviet republics, where official salaries always have been low and special benefits and privileges plentiful for the elite.

Spokesmen for the Russian Space Agency and Mission Control Center refused to discuss the money issue.

"The contracts are confidential and it would be unethical to reveal their contents," said Sergei Gromov, spokesman for RKK Energia, a state-run company that built the Mir and has overseen it since its 1986 launch.

Gromov, however, did not dismiss the figures published in the Russian media, saying the newspapers apparently "got them from some cosmonaut."

The last time the money question attracted public attention was 1995, when space officials stripped Mir commander Gennady Strekalov of some benefits for refusing to make a spacewalk.

Strekalov, who cited safety concerns and the lack of necessary equipment, went to arbitration after his return from space and won the money back.

There's no word on whether the outgoing Mir crew - Vasily Tsibliyev and Alexander Lazutkin - would be subject to financial sanctions for any of the woes that have plagued the station in recent months. They return to Earth on Thursday.

Last month, the Mir lost all power temporarily after a crew member inadvertently unplugged a key cable. And the Mir's June 25 space collision occurred while the crew was practicing a manual docking with a Progress cargo ship.

Russian newspapers have blamed Tsibliyev for the June crash. Russian space officials have not assigned blame, saying only that the cause was under investigation. President Boris Yeltsin, however, said last week that the collision apparently was caused by human error.