Adopting a better relationship with the Russians

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Published on: January 19, 2013

Jan. 19, 2013

To paraphrase Will Rogers, I never met a Russian that I didn’t like.

Like others in my general age bracket, I grew up at a time when the Cold War was just a term I heard on TV. I wasn’t old enough to comprehend the potential horror of nuclear war, or understand that it was a real threat at all.

Russians seemed mysterious to me because I didn’t know a lot about them. I knew we were racing them to the Moon, and that they were supposed to be the enemy, but my only real sense of them came from watching I Dream of Jeannie, or the episode of Gilligan’s Island where a pair of cosmonauts splash down in the lagoon.

When I visited the Kennedy Space Center before the 1975 Apollo Soyuz Test Project, there was a full scale mock up of the Apollo Command and Service modules docked to the Soyuz spacecraft on display in the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building.

I remember thinking how strange and foreign the Soyuz looked, and how difficult it was to get the color of it just right when I returned home to Minnesota and painted my model of the joined spaceships that I had bought in the KSC gift shop.

(By the way, you can still see that full-scale Soyuz mock up hanging on display at the KSC Visitor Complex inside the Early Exploration building that includes the Debus Conference Center.)

A little later in life when I was in college at Embry Riddle in Daytona Beach and worked on the student newspaper, the Avion, I drove down to KSC to cover a press conference involving a hand full of Russian students who were touring the space center, and much to my surprise they looked and acted just like me.

I also met my first Russian cosmonaut that day, Vladimir Solovyov, and through a coincidence of being in the same place at the same time later that day over at the visitor complex, I got to spend some quality time with just him and his interpreter.

And can you believe it? He wasn’t at all like those cosmonauts I had seen on Gilligan’s Island.

Since then I have met many more Russians associated with the space program and have travelled twice to Moscow. I talked with them, I ate with them, I drank Vodka with them — and I can honestly say I have never had a bad experience with any of them, despite the Vodka.

I have come to respect our Russian counterparts in the space program, and based on my own observations and discussions with our American astronauts who have flown on Russian hardware, I trust that the Russians know what they are doing in space.

No, I don’t like that we don’t have our own way to get into and of orbit right now and have to rely on the Russians, but that’s a problem our nation’s leaders created for ourselves. It’s not the Russian’s fault. All we can do now is work to get our own capability up and running as fast as possible.

And perhaps we better move a little bit faster, because things could change in a heartbeat on the international stage, and relations between our two countries could sour even more than they have during the past few months.

One issue that has come up recently has me so ticked off that I can barely contain my sincere outrage and bitterness towards the Russian government and President Putin. It has nothing to do with the space program, at least not directly. But it does have to do with how our international relations evolve in the future, which very much could affect our partnership in space.

What has me so upset, you ask? It’s the fact that as of the New Year, the Russian government has banned any Americans from adopting orphaned Russian children.

According to our U.S. State Department, American’s have adopted more than 60,000 Russian children since 1991. Of those, Russian government officials say, 19 have died during the past decade. Of course the loss of any child is tragic, but I’m willing to bet that if you took a random sampling of any 60,000 kids in America during the past ten years you’ll find more than 19 examples of death for all sorts of reasons — notwithstanding what happened in Newtown.

As for the Russian’s, they blame the American court system for the 19 deaths by allowing what they say are irresponsible parents to adopt, and that all of their Russian orphans are therefore better off staying in their home country, where allegedly they will be treated with more compassion and be safer.

Russian officials say there are more than 650,000 children who are considered orphans, and only about 110,000 of them live in state institutions.

The adoption ban is reportedly in retaliation for a recent law enacted in the U.S. that prevents those Russians who have been associated with human rights violations from obtaining visas to come here, or of maintaining bank accounts here – a move some Russian officials say is an attack on Russia.

Last weekend tens of thousands of Russian citizens took to the streets of Moscow to protest the ban. Commentators there and abroad are saying this one issue has become a hot button trigger for the overall disgust Russians have for their leaders.

This issue has triggered a hot button for me as well.

I know a few families whose lives have been so blessed by adopting a child, whether that child came from Russia, China or elsewhere. I can’t imagine how these gifts from God could ever be as cared for, safe and loved if they had to remain in an impersonal state-run orphanage.

But what makes this particularly personal for me is the fact that in 1995, on my way home from Moscow after covering the launch of Norm Thagard as the first American to ride a Russian rocket, I helped a young American mother with her brand new adopted Russian baby girl.

At the airport in Moscow, waiting at the gate, I was watching with some amount of amusement and great sympathy as the obviously inexperienced young lady wrestled with managing her baby, diaper bag, carry-on bag and baby carrier.

The tiny baby girl was so pretty, wearing pink clothes and lace, and looking all feminine — the opposite of my family back home in Florida, where three boys ages 7, 5 and 3 awaited my return. As the experienced father, and generally a nice guy I’m told, I reached out to the woman and offered to help, which she was very grateful to accept.

As we chatted I quickly learned that although “Sex in the City” was still three years away, she was what we can now describe as your classic Carrie Bradshaw, sophisticated New York City type, single successful woman in Manhattan looking for more meaning in life, and had decided she wanted to be a mother too. With her newly adopted Russian baby, she now resembled a scene from the 1987 movie Baby Boom as Diane Keaton struggled to cope with her new parental responsibilities.

Anyway, in helping her with her stuff, she let me carry the little girl on the plane in Moscow, and off the plane and through Customs in New York. What a privilege and honor it was to be the one to deliver that little baby to the United States and present her to her new Grandparents, who were waiting there.

Those are the kind of very human moments that should not be prevented from continuing to happen because of the international gamesmanship played by politicians.

And for that very reason I’m not suggesting we abandon our Russian partners in space. On the contrary, we must work even closer together in hopes that the trust and friendships we demonstrate in space can be seen by Russia’s leaders, and convince them that what they are doing to prevent their own (abandoned?) children from having a chance to enjoy the love of a family from another nation is not right and must be stopped.

If our children are our future in space, all of us on this planet must do everything we can together to care for and love them, no matter what country they are from, nor what country they grow up in.

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