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First Person: Launching Zarya

Russia's participation in the international space station project gave CBS News Correspondent Jeffrey Kofman a chance to see what life is like at Mission Control. Armed with a digital camera, he filed this report exclusively for CBS.com

We are 40 minutes north of Moscow, on our way to Mission Control, to watch the launch of Zarya, the Russian-built module that is the first component of the International Space Station. As we turn off Prospekt Mira I spot the rocket announcing our arrival in Korolev, the city that bears the name of the man who is considered the father of the Soviet space program. Korolev is Russia's Houston. Our presence here as foreign journalists is itself remarkable. Until the early 1990's, the city was closed to all foreigners.

Click here for a slide show from Korolev.

We drive past a derelict industrial compound, surrounded by an aging brick wall. It looks like yet another in that endless series of abandoned factories that litter the Russian landscape. Windows are broken and the buildings are decaying and neglected.

"How far are we,"I ask. "This is it," says one of my colleagues who has been here before.

Mission Control, or TsUP as it's known by its Russian Acronym, is in the most modern of the buildings. A brick and marble high-rise that looks solid and elegant from a distance, but up close it looks sad: the construction is shoddy, doors don't close and the entranceway is worn, dirty and dark.

An escort takes upstairs, to the Mission Control Center. We are ushered down a corridor clad in cheap bronze aluminum. Many of the lights are out, the cracked linoleum is covered with a carpet. It looks like the set of a 1960's sci-fi film. Mission Control isn't much different. An imposing two-story hall, with what looks like the latest in technology... from the 1960's. Apart from the digital clock, the place looks like a museum. It is staggering to discover that this antique facility was actually built in 1986.

We are in the visitors gallery. The giant screen shows the proton rocket on its launch pad. Down below several dozen men in suits sit casually in front of rows of television monitors that are never turned on. Most of the men are Russian, but some are representatives of the foreign space teams taking part in this 16-nation project.

The assembled chat until the countdown hits zero. Then it is absolutely quiet. All eyes are fixed on the screen. The rocket that bears Zarya takes off. Within seconds it disappears into the clouds. All seems well, but the cloud cover makes it an anti-climax. It is still quiet. A graph appears on the screen, mapping Zarya's progress toward the heavens. Ten minutes into the flight, an announcement in Russian: Zarya has reached orbit, prompting an enormous cheer and huge sihs of relief.

The Russians have already delayed the launch of this first component for more than a year. The reason is simple: the country is broke. Money promised to the space program hasn't been given and scientists haven't been paid. Zarya was finished with American money. Which is why a mishap today would have been a terrible blow to the already humiliated Russians and to the prospects for this space station.

Costing at least $40 billion dollars, the space station is said to be the most expensive, most complex construction project in history. The value of the science it will uncover has been attacked, so has Russia's impoverished role. That's why this launch was so important. When you see first-hand what Russia's scientists have to work with, you can't help respecting this accomplishment.

Written and photographed by Jeffrey Kofman

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