ABOARD THE MARSHAL KRYLOV - A Russian space capsule is scheduled to splash down into the Pacific 150 miles from Washington's coast today in a demonstration of technical expertise the struggling new republic hopes will promote trade.
Called Europe-America Spaceflight 500, the splashdown from a week-old polar orbit is also timed to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage.
An estimated 300 Russian dignitaries on two chartered flights are scheduled to arrive in Seattle tomorrow and will meet the ship that is retrieving the capsule, the Marshal Krylov, at Pier 42 at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
A Russian-American Business Opportunity Conference will open Wednesday at the Seattle Sheraton.
The Krylov, a previously top-secret missile-tracking ship, will be open for tours from 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesday.
"It is the most secret ship in our history," said Gennady Alferenko, chairman of the Foundation for Social Innovations of Moscow and an originator of the satellite idea. "Russian journalists have never visited this ship."
U.S. reporters are on board this weekend to see the satellite retrieval.
On Thanksgiving, Rotary Club members and church groups are hosting the Krylov's estimated 400 sailors and the 300 Russian visitors at their homes. Friday, beginning at 9:30 a.m., the Bon Marche holiday parade will feature the space capsule.
Festivities extend into next weekend, including a wedding in front of the space capsule, which will be displayed at the Museum of Flight.
The one-of-a-kind publicity stunt, which has drawn media attention around the world, is designed to demonstrate commercial applications of Russia's military space fleet.
"In Russia, it's unbelievable publicity," said Alferenko. "This crazy idea is finally reality."
Seattle was picked as the West Coast host site because of its sponsorship of the Goodwill Games in 1990 and because it expressed more interest than San Francisco or Los Angeles, Alferenko said. "There's a real special energy in the Seattle area," he said.
This will be the first time the Russians have tried to recover a space capsule at sea. In the past their craft parachuted onto land.
"It will be very interesting to see what happens," Alferenko said. "It's a big risk for us." The capsule carries a toy dog, messages of peace, souvenirs, religious icons, and a Christmas present for President-elect Bill Clinton.
It also includes artwork, and the Russians say this is the first time an art exhibit has been shipped to space.
The capsule was blessed by the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Alferenko said Russia does not want American aid. "We are not Ethiopia," he said. Rather, it wants investment in Russian entrepreneurs.
He said money from the launch was raised from new Russian millionaires who paid the military for the hardware. "We paid money for every step. That is very unusual," he said.
Alferenko said Russia is under enormous stress right now as it tries to dismantle communism and substitute capitalist institutions. "I think for Westerners it is very important to participate," he said.