The fame of the Russian Academy of Sciences, established as long ago as 1724, is global.
The Central Aerohydrodynamics Institute, better known by its acronym TsAGI, is one of the most renowned aerospace research institutes in the world – indeed, founded in 1918, it is today the largest single scientific research centre on the planet.
The country’s record is impressive – the world’s first four-engined aircraft was Igor Sikorsky’s Le Grand, which flew in 1913 (the Russian-born and educated Sikorsky later, as a US citizen, perfected the helicopter, flying his prototype VS-300 in 1939).
Over the years, many Russian aircraft, designed by such luminaries as Artem Mikoyan (Mig design bureau), Mikhail Mil, Pavel Sukhoi, and Aleksandr Yakovlev (to name only some) set many records for speed, altitude, and payload.
The fastest series production fighter ever was the Mig-25, the first vertical take-off and landing aircraft to exceed the speed of sound in level flight was the Yak-141, and the biggest helicopter is the Mil Mi-26.
In the field of rocketry and space flight, the theoretical foundations were laid by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky while Sergei Korolev was the brilliant designer who spearheaded the early successes of the Russian space programme.
Russia’s role in space speaks for itself – in the realm of unmanned exploration, the first satellite in orbit (Sputnik 1, October, 1957), the first animal in space (the dog Laika, Sputnik 2, November, 1957), the first space probe to leave Earth orbit (Luna 1, January 1959 – it passed the moon at 3 728 miles and entered solar orbit), the first probe to impact the moon (Luna 2, September, 1959), the first probe to photograph the dark side of the moon (Luna 3, October, 1959), the first soft-landing on the moon and the first photos from the lunar surface (Luna 9, 1966), and the first probe to soft-land on Venus and the first to return data from another planet (Venera 7, 1970).
In manned spaceflight, the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin, 1961), the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova, 1963) and the first walk in space (Aleksei Leonov, 1965).
Although the US got to the moon first, its was the Russians who put the first space station in orbit – Salyut 1 in 1971, two years ahead of America’s Skylab.
The Salyut series was followed by the first multimodule space station, Mir, the core module fo which was launched in 1986 – eventually it comprised six modules plus a docking port for the US space shuttle, and served for 15 years (admittedly, longer than originally planned, with consequent problems) until it was 'de-orbited' in 2001, burning up over the Pacific.
Mir has been replaced by the current International Space Station (ISS), and Russia’s Zarya was the first module of the ISS to be launched. Following the recent tragic loss of the shuttle Columbia, and until the cause is determined and cured, the only way to and from the ISS is by Russian Soyuz spacecraft, one of which carried South Africa’s first astronaut Mark Shuttleworth to the space station last year (see Engineering News April 26, 2002).
The Russians regard Shuttleworth’s space mission as an example of scientific cooperation between the two countries because of the experiments Shuttleworth carried out on the ISS on behalf of South African researchers.
These included a soluble protein crystallisation experiment, and embryo and stem-cell development experiment, and an exercise and training experiment with Shuttleworth himself as the guinea pig.
Even after the political and economic upheavals of the past decade or so, the World Bank reports that there are still 426 000 active scientists in Russia and the education system remains heavily weighted towards maths and science, creating an intellectual resource of considerable size and renowned quality.
And South Africa is beginning to tap into that resource.
“I think Russia offers a huge opportunity with its massive intellectual capital, built up over decades,” asserts Department of Science and Technology director-general Dr Rob Adam.
“Prior to 1994 theres was little official South African engagement with Russia – today the relationship works very well at the diplomatic level and now we must turn this to scientific and technological account,” he adds.
“Russia is one of the top five or six scientific countries and we haven’t exploited this scientific potential until now,” he points out. “The potential for scientific and technological cooperation with Russia is enormous,” affirms National Research Foundation international science liaison manager Robert Kriger.
The two countries signed a bilateral agreement on science and technology in 1994, and subsequently set up a science and technology cooperation committee, which is a part of the South Africa/Russia Binational Commission.
“The scientific interactions we’ve already seen have been incredible – the Russian scientists have impressed their South African colleagues with their commitment to research excellence and their broad knowledge of both theory and practice,” reports Kriger.
Unfortunately, lack of resources is currently restricting the exchange of information – exchange, because the Russians are also very interested in South African expertise.
Even so, “there is quite a bit of scientific exchange between the Russian Academy of Sciences and the South African Academy of Sciences,” he reports.
He describes these as “quite lively exchanges.” Areas of particular mutual interest are biotechnology, nanotechnology and mining.
“A newer initiative is a specific linkage under the umbrella of biotechnology,” he cites.
“The Department of Science and Technology places quite a big emphasis on biotechnology and in terms of this Professor Iqbal Parker at the University of Cape Town has established links with biotechnology institutes in Russia,” points out Kriger.
Six Russian biotechnology experts are expected to visit South Africa this year and help set up cooperative projects that will run for the next few years.
There are some 12 Russian scientists working in this country at present, excluding those directly recruited by South African universities.
And metals and minerals science council Mintek is awaiting approval to bring out up to six Russian scientists later this year for periods ranging from six months to two years.
“The other science councils can do the same – the conditions are that the foreign researchers have to be working on an established project and be people with proved expertise,” explains Kriger.
Mintek has already embarked on a number of collaborative ventures with its counterparts in Russia.
Another area of collaboration is remote sensing, with the CSIR’s Satellite Applications Centre (SAC) having an agreement with Russian space agency Rosaviakosmos to sell images from Russian remote sensing satellites to the South African market.
In fact, the CSIR will be the official distributor for images captured over not only South Africa, but also Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
It is believed that the Russians are considering the possibility of approaching the SAC with a proposal to build a ground station at the Hartebeeshoek facility to directly receive the images from the Russian satellites.
Both sides are interested in further developing cooperation in space research, but again lack of resources and the lack of a specific South African space agency are obstacles to progress.
Still with space, but looking out, Russia has played an important part in the Southern Africa Large Telescope (SALT) project at Sutherland in the Western Cape.
SALT will use an 11-m-diameter hexagonal mirror array made up of 91 mirror segments, and the mirror blanks for these segments have been made by a Russian company, LZOS, which is one of only three in the world which could have done the job.
Futhermore, the Russians will provide the long-term maintenance of the mirror segments, with an on-site facility.
Another cutting-edge South African project with significant Russian input is the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR).
Reportedly, the Russians have been working on comparable technologies for some 40 years, and the South Africans now have access to the resulting expertise.
A PBMR test facility was built at the Kurchatovski Institute Research Centre, in Moscow, to study PBMR reactor neutronic characteristics, a programme which is continuing.
Another Russian facility, OKBM of Nizhny Novgorod, provided assistance in the design of key components of the PBMR, including the power turbine and electromagnetic bearings.
In addition, the PBMR company signed a contract in early 2001 with a Russian group called Tenex, for the supply of uranium feedstock for the PBMR fuel, which it is planned to manufacture in South Africa.
Furthermore, the Nikiet Research Centre, which is located at Zarechny, near Ekaterinburg, was tasked by the South Africans to help develop a methodology for the qualification of the PBMR fuel.
The Nikiet Centre will also test South African-made fuel and it is hoped to send the first batch to them in June next year.
“We’ve been involved with the Russians for a number of years, we’ve been very happy with them, they’re very good at what they do, and they’re adding value to the project,” reports PBMR CEO Dave Nicholls.
“We expect to go on working with them for a long time to come,” he adds.
“In the short term, I’d like to see the new biotechnology linkage work, as it is a national priority for us, but I would also like to see much broader and deeper links in mining – not just technologies but also mining sciences and geosciences,” concludes Kriger.