Vladimir Surdin: ''Everything is very bad in our astronautics, almost no real achievements''

Famous astronomer and person who popularises science talks about the situation in Russian astronautics, lack of intellect and Zimin's Dynasty fund

Vladimir Surdin: ''Everything is very bad in our astronautics, almost no real achievements'' Photo: Maksim Platonov

Realnoe Vremya managed to talk to another famous Russian astronomer and person who popularises science, senior fellow of the Sternberg Astronomical Institute, docent of the Faculty of Physics at Moscow State University Vladimir Surdin whose visit was organised together with Alpina Non-Fiction Publishing House during the Smena's Summer Book Festival. In Kazan, the scientist delivered a lecture about Mars. In a talk with Realnoe Vremya's reporter, he told what is going on in Russian astronautics, why Russia can't succeed even if it has ideas and money in this field and why the authorities don't need an educated population.

''Everything is very bad in our astronautics. Only plans are discussed, there are almost no real achievements''

Mr Surdin, space is one of the most interesting topics, of course. What is happening to it in Russia now? As far as I am concerned, if earlier we occupied the first place in commercial launches, now we are losing to America and China.

We are not losing to America yet because their astronautics is expensive – they pay their workers and engineers well. Ours are still cheap, we don't pay the labour of our workers well. But China starts to go ahead of us because they also pay a bit but their rockets are not worse than ours. And now one rocket will be even better. We are considerably losing to China. India actively starts to enter the market – it loses to China but already catches up with us. Although not only in astronautics – we have not had new car models, agricultural equipment left from the Soviet era, many things. We are becoming richer personally: we build dachas and buy Mercedes cars. When this process ends, engineering will probably start to develop again. Everything is very bad in our astronautics. Only plans are discussed, there are almost no real achievements. We fly on the same vehicle to the same place where we have flown in the last ten years. We have launched nothing further the earth orbit, that is to say, to the Moon, Mars, Venus, during 30 years. The generation of engineers who knew how to do it passed away during the 30 years. New, young people who don't have experience came. Even if they start launching spacecraft today, they will go through all the mistakes that generation went through.

Do we have a reserve? Can we hope that we will finally achieve great successes in modern astronautics?

Who hoped in the early 20 th century that right Russia, a too obsolete agrarian country, would launch the first satellite, send the first man into space, be first to land on the Moon? It was impossible to forecast. It was possible because the Bolsheviks came – very strict power that ground people down making them work. But it managed to prepare for a colossal breakthrough in engineering and industry. By awful losses of both people and art pieces, we sold out expensive paintings from the Hermitage to buy equipment from Americans for factories. Nevertheless, precisely the power made the retarded agrarian country an engineering leader. In other words, almost everything comes to a desire and skill of the power to make the country different. What a country the power wants to make it depends on whether we have a desire or not. Every person wants well-being in family, cosiness, comforts, to work less, to have more – it is a normal desire of almost every person. And we feed the power to enable it to rule the ship. Our hopes will go there where it turns the steering wheel. We will either continue purchasing new Mercedes cars or new machine tools to make new goods.

What a place we occupy now in this race?

We need to remember only one digit very well – 2%. Russia's population accounts for 2% of the world population. The scientific product is 2% of the world scientific product. America has 30%, China has about 15% today. These are very interconnected things. But if we continue purchasing expensive cars, building dachas and buying yachts for these 2%, there won't be any country, roughly speaking. In world production, Switzerland accounts for 1%. But what they do well creates a good life for the whole nation. We need to count on it as we have 2% of the population, it means we need to create normal conditions for them. Powerful programmes are needed to educate people. Now it is not common to quote Lenin. But one his quotation is in the forefront of my mind: learn, learn and again learn. He was the person who said when the revolution took place and he was the person who saw the level the population was at. The Bolsheviks either shot the intelligentsia dead or jailed or expelled them abroad. And when he saw what left, he said to learn was the only goal. And they started to learn.

Now it is not common to quote Lenin. But one his quotation is in the forefront of my mind: learn, learn and again learn. He was the person who said when the revolution took place and he was the person who saw the level the population was at

Is Russia going to colonise Mars in the short run?

We don't have any plans for Mars. If Europe did not attract us to this project, we would not have them. We have plans for the Moon. We have Lavochkina factory that manufactures good satellites. It started to make robots that will fly around the Moon, land on it, bring soil samples – in brief, to repeat what we did in the 60s but at a more modern level. In other words, the new generation of engineering will learn to do what the previous generation went through. I think China will be ahead of us because all their schedules are earlier than Russia's, while ours, on the contrary, are postponed. And everything goes far away because of a lack of money. I have taught several Chinese students in the last 10 years. They always say: ''We want about the Moon.'' I answer that there are many interesting things besides the Moon. They continued: ''No, we want about the Moon. We have a lunar programme, and we were asked to know how to deal with the Moon.'' I look and see they finally learnt how to deal with it. They will send a person to the Moon in 7-8 years.

Elon Musk set a task to colonise Mars by 2100. What do you think about the entrepreneur? Are his plans real?

Some people admire Musk, others say he is an impostor. I think he managed to make real everything he has promised at the moment. Why should not we love him if he is a really talented businessman and smart engineer? But it is not a work of only one person – he is backed by colossal American equipment. He knows how to make a project up, find money and make the American industry produce. We had a smart person – Yury Milner who became a billionaire here, then moved to the Silicon Valley and is launching amazing projects on search of extra-terrestrial civilisations, interstellar travels. It might seem he made this money here, why can't he launch these projects in Russia? The thing is that we don't have a site. Even if there is money, somebody needs to make smart things for it. Precisely Elon Musk and not only he takes advantage of that the American industry expects a good idea from him to start making it real. Give us an idea and money, and we will do it. Our country has few people who are able to do it. Even if there are money and ideas, there are almost no skilful people, workers, engineers. If there are, they work for our military industry that takes the best things in the country. So Musk is a tough cookie, he knows what to do. He also a good promoter – he skillfully promotes this business.

''If he smart leaves, it needs to be reproduced and brought up here''

Mr Surdin, first of all, you are famous as a person who makes science popular. Is it difficult? What perception problems do you face because Russia has literacy problems?

This is why popularisation is needed – if everybody were literate, we would not be probably invited to other cities. It is a pity that I am quite a conservative person and don't like to use new communication means. For instance, my younger colleagues take advantage of social networks, and they have a very big audience. It shows that curiosity did not disappear, people are interested in science. I prefer paper that goes out of fashion – I write books and articles. It is more pleasant for me to hold a book in my hands as I did as a student, not to lose it on the Net without having listened to a lecture. It is another feeling – books accompany you during all your life like old acquaintances. I understand we need to refuse it – paper books will disappear like clay letterings, papyri. We need to get used to social networks. But it seems that it will another generation. It is my personal problem, not a problem of scientific popularisation.

Concerns of the power that smart, curious people are people who don't believe everything, sceptic are a more serious problem. When we talk to the audience, first of all, we talk about unsolved problems, what was not completely proved, what needs to be revised. And the power doesn't like the word ''consider revising''. The power likes to create rules. According to them it can live better, rule the country. Its function is needed – society will collapse without power. But the power finds it more comfortable when people unquestionably believe and accept everything coming from it. And popularisation of science psyches people up to check everything, not to trust everything, question everything. Otherwise, science would not develop. It is a completely different approach to life. Of course, the power doesn't welcome development of popularisation of sciences.

Individuals – sponsors and beneficiaries – support as much as they can. Dmitry Zimin's Dynasty has been the most important phenomenon in the last 10 years. By the way, he made much money by creating anti-missile vehicles for the country. This money is absolutely pure, patriotic. Then he created the first Beeline mobile telephony company and made a capital on it that he gave to develop Russian intellect – he supported publication of books, invited lecturers from abroad. As he is an unmanageable, confident person, the country needed smart people, Dynasty fund was announced a foreign agent, which became a nonsense. The country doesn't care, no matter whether its behaviour is logical, it does what it considers correct. But what is correct for a small group of administrators can't be correct for the country, in general. And the country needs smart people.

Freedom of going abroad seems to be the only thing we achieved by cancelling the Soviet power. First of all, those who see better conditions for application of their knowledge used it. In other words, the smart went and continue leaving. But it is a big achievement – now we go abroad without thinking whether we will be allowed to enter or not. It is great. But if the smart leave, they need to be reproduced and brought up here. And popularisation of science, good teaching at universities is bringing minds up. The power doesn't care about it a lot. It doesn't need scientists who question some decisions of the power. It is a more serious problem. Probably we won't be able to cope with it easily. Certain programmes, reading rooms need to be created, not to change the attitude of the power to the minds in the country. The more it is, the more the power will be criticised – you can't escape it.

Popularisation of science psyches people up to check everything, not to trust everything, question everything. Otherwise, science would not develop. It is a completely different approach to life. Of course, the power doesn't welcome development of popularisation of sciences

Look at developed countries – the government is constantly criticised by the society. But the same smart people created a good life in Western Europe and America — the best doctors and engineers are there. Intellect can't criticise the power only, where it should put all the thoughts born in the head! They made Mercedes cars that are bought by our rich people, drilling equipment we use to extract oil. The minds are needed, and when people understand it where decisions are made, then popularisation can become an easier and more interesting thing. But now we are looking at life on the sidelines, of course.

What sciences do you think need to be developed in Russia, first of all?

From a financial perspective, probably the sciences that can make products from our resources. We have oil, gas, interesting metals: aluminium, zinc. At the moment, we sell it as feedstock. Same engineering professions that make expensive goods from it are more in demand. The thing is that a good engineer can be created if only the country has people who follow all the scientific fields because today engineering is what was discovered yesterday by fundamental scientists. It won't work otherwise. Fullerene – an absolutely unclear ball of hydrocarbon atoms — was discovered yesterday. Today its production started. Or nanotubes that were simply discovered in a fundamental laboratory. And today very strong ropes and other things are made of them. If we don't have a class of scientists in all the professions, we will lose contact with world science. There won't be people who would translate what fundamental scientists discovered into a language that is understandable for engineers. We will lose again. Such a big country as our must support all the sciences just to understand what is going on abroad if not at the highest level. So that we would be able to create engineers who will make iPhones, roughly speaking, from our feedstock. It is a shame to buy iPhones that China can make for some reason while we can't.

Such a big country as our must support all the sciences just to understand what is going on abroad if not at the highest level. So that we would be able to create engineers who will make iPhones, roughly speaking, from our feedstock. It is a shame to buy iPhones that China can make for some reason while we can't

Now Russia started to pay more attention to secondary professional education. Do you think it is a positive tendency?

I had many cars. I had new Zhiguli. And I saw some bolts were hammed. Then I had and I still have a German car – I saw it doesn't want to break down and still runs for some reason because it was made by a neat person. Earlier I thought the problem was that a worker needs to be made do his job well. But it is impossible – a watchdog is needed for every worker who will watch whether he doesn't tighten screws with a ham. But another thing can be done, just to educate cultured people who won't be able to do bad things. Once I was on a train in Europe and got into conversation with a young man from the next compartment. He told he was travelling and going to Russia. Then he was going to go to Africa. He spoke German, English, French. My wife talked to him in Italian. The young man was cultured, attractive, well dressed. When I asked him how much he earned in the end, he replied he worked in a car assembly plant in Germany. I was overwhelmed at that moment. The person who grew up cultured, educated, neat in all the senses works on an assembly line. I understood why Mercedes did not break down.

It is our big problem. Probably we need to start with the countryside. If a person grew up with a toilet in the garden, it is difficult to explain him how to work in a modern e-factory where you can't even a sneeze at goods because another atom will fly and the processor won't work. But a breakthrough won't change anything, the general culture needs to be raised. It is pleasant it is gradually growing – we can't underestimate, people are becoming literate.

And technical colleges are a trampoline where quite an educated person can understand how to work with modern equipment. Now nobody stands near a machine tool with dirty hands and oily dungarees. People stand near computers, select programmes. But a detail that costs 1,000 rubles that is thrown away by this machine tool depends on how neat you will make it.

By Maria Gorozhaninova. Photo: Maksim Platonov