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Mon, Jul 07, 2003

She's Ready To Go

But There's No Way To Get There

Nadezhda Kutelnaya has trained for nine long years to be a Russian cosmonaut. She's beaten the odds -- there are no other women currently part of the Russian space program. But she's now reportedly losing hope that she will ever leave the planet.

“A woman in space is an exception for today’s Russia,” she says with a sigh, pointing out that every single woman who applied for the Russian space program last month was turned down cold.

“This is a mentality issue — Russian men claim they want to protect women from difficult labor,” she says.

It's ironic to hear such bitterness from a woman whose country sent the first female into space in 1963. Valentina Tereshkova's brief flight was, at the time, seen as a victory for socialism in its losing war against the West. Tereshkova became a role model for women, even insisting that going into space was no more dangerous than driving a car.

Russia sent another woman into space 19 years later.

In 1982, Svetlana Savitskaya rocketed into orbit for a lengthy stay aboard the Russian MIR Space Station. “I envied her terribly and told myself — why not me?” Kutelnaya remembers.

Kutelnaya worked up the courage to apply to the cosmonaut program in 1994. She was accepted and did so well that she was assigned to Russia's elite corps of astronauts for a trip to the International Space Station. She was all ready to go in 2001. But she was grounded.

Always A Bridesmaid

Kutelnaya was slotted to board the ISS as an engineer. But she was bumped from the flight to make room for the world's first space tourist.

American Dennis Tito payed $20 million for the privilege of going into orbit (over the objections of NASA). It was the closest Kutelnaya has come so far to actually doing her job.

Her hopes were briefly elevated in October, 2001, when she was assigned as back-up for French astronaut Claudie Haignere. Usually, the back-up cosmonaut can count on hitching the next ride into orbit.

Once again, however, she was bumped by Russia's desperate need for cold, hard cash. South African millionaire Mark Sutterworth went to the ISS in April, 2002, paying the requisite $20 million for the chance.

“The worst thing for me was to watch a spacecraft blasting off without me,” she confessed, tears springing to her eyes. “Russia’s space sector needs money. Besides, they promised me nothing. My name did not appear on the team lists for the next missions.”

The fire that burned so brightly in the eyes of young Nadezhda dimmed even further after the Columbia tragedy last February. She was told by Russian space officials that she would not be flying to the ISS "anytime soon."

Still, Nadezhda stays in shape. She lives in a cramped Moscow studio apartment with her retired husband and their four-year old son. She won't give up she says.

How can she? In English, "Nadezhda" means "hope."



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