Azerbaijan International

Winter 2001 (9.4)
Pages 46-49

On Our Own
Rebuilding Azerbaijan's Aerospace Industry
by Arif Mehdiyev

Arif Mehdiyev
The Soviet Union had been such a strong state that for many of us it came as a shock that it could collapse. Since Azerbaijan's aerospace industry had been completely financed by the Ministry in Moscow, it was as if we had been suddenly orphaned.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, many of Azerbaijan's established industries had to start all over again from scratch. The aerospace industry was no exception. All of a sudden, Azerbaijan's National Aerospace Agency - which had been given a generous budget as part of the superpower's huge military buildup - was broke. It didn't even have the funds to pay its own employees.

Here Dr. Arif Mehdiyev, the Agency's General Director, tells how he and his colleagues restructured the organization after it lost direction and funding from Moscow as well as its links with other aerospace organizations throughout the Soviet Union. Today the Agency focuses on remote sensing technologies that have practical applications for fields such as agriculture, ecology and the oil industry.

Azerbaijan's aerospace industry began in 1973, when Baku hosted a meeting of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF). It was the first time that such an event had ever been held in the Soviet Union. About 2,000 representatives from all over the world attended the Congress, including American astronaut Charles Conrad, Jr.

At that time, Heydar Aliyev was First Secretary of the Central Committee of Azerbaijan, the top leadership position in the Republic. After the IAF Congress, Aliyev challenged Azerbaijan's Academy of Sciences to realize some sort of benefit from the advances in science and technology that had been discussed at this important international meeting. The organization decided to open the Scientific and Industrial Association of Space Research, now known as the National Aerospace Agency. This center officially opened in January 1975 under the umbrella of Azerbaijan's Academy of Sciences.

Left: In a project that was the first of its kind for the former Soviet Union, Azerbaijan's National Aerospace Agency worked with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to compile intricate maps of Azerbaijan using satellite data.

Most other Soviet republics didn't have this type of aerospace organization, or if they did, it was staffed mainly by Russian scientists. For example, in the small institute that was established in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, most of the workers were Russian. After the Russian Federation and Ukraine, Azerbaijan became one of the first Republics to have an organization of this kind.

In 1985, the association came under the authority of the USSR's General Machinery Building Ministry. By that time, we had become an autonomous organization inside the Academy of Sciences and had worked with the Ministry for several years. Of course, the name "Common Machinery Building" was misleading; that was just for the sake of secrecy. The Ministry was actually focused on space and its applications, including the launching of piloted spacecrafts.

As part of the highly developed military complex, this Ministry had factories, research institutes, test sites and research bureaus located all over the Soviet Union. To borrow from Solzhenitsyn's terminology, it was like an "archipelago" of institutions that worked together to implement a national space program. Naturally, the headquarters of the Ministry of Common Machinery Building was located in Moscow.

When we became part of the Ministry in 1985, only a few people in Azerbaijan knew what kind of work we were carrying out. Our main scientific direction was remote sensing: studying the Earth's surface from distant vantage points, usually from satellites or aircraft. But the field of our activity was quite broad, including basic research, device building and the development of management systems and corresponding software. And, of course, the greater part of our activity was related to the USSR's military programs. For example, one of our projects was to detect and evaluate the scale, intensity and other parameters of atomic, biological and chemical bomb explosions, using satellite surveillance. In the field of device building, our best-known project was to build Pulsar-XI, an X-ray spectrometer for the Mir orbital space station. The spectrometer was designed to look for X-ray sources in outer space. This device functioned successfully throughout the timespan of the Mir project.

Flushed with Money
Since we were dealing with military applications, we were given as much money as we wanted. If we asked for 100 million rubles, we could easily get it. The only problem we had was in figuring out how to spend all that money. It was a situation of "use it or lose it".

Left: Azerbaijan's National Aerospace Agency used remote sensing technology to create these detailed images of the Republic's water resources, soil quality and land cover.

Let's say we were given 100 million rubles for one year. For each month, we would have to document that we had spent about 1/10 of that sum. But how could we spend it? Sure, some of it went for salaries, materials, equipment and orders from our partners. But that money wasn't considered spent until it was taken out of the bank account. Very often we had to send telegrams to our partners in Moscow or other cities in the USSR, asking them to take the money out of the account as soon as possible. Our reports had to show that the money had been spent.

When President Reagan started his Star Wars program in the 1980s, the Soviet Union moved quickly to create a similar program. A very large factory was on the drawing board to be built in Mingachevir, in north-central Azerbaijan. This 180,000-square-meter facility was to be located close to the Kur River, near the railroad and a large electrical power station. In addition, a small city would be built nearby to accommodate the factory's workers. At that time, we didn't even know what kind of factory it would be, perhaps something related to the Star Wars project. If not that, then there would have been some other project related to space.

Arif Mehdiyev (standing) with General Karim Karimov
In fact, six such factories were to be built all around the Soviet Union. They were to be directed and supervised by a military industrial commission of the Council of Ministers in Moscow.

Left: Arif Mehdiyev (standing) with General Karim Karimov who held one of the highest positions in the Soviet Space Program.

Ultimately, the project in Azerbaijan never got past the planning stages. It took so long to carry out the project that by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, only one percent of the budget had been spent.

Sudden Collapse
I was Deputy Director of the institute when the General Director, academician Tofig Ismayilov, died in a helicopter accident along with many other top officials. Their helicopter was shot down by Armenians over Nagorno-Karabakh on November 20, 1991. I inherited the position of General Director. Barely a month later, the Soviet Union collapsed.

At first, nobody could believe that the news was true. The Soviet Union had been such a strong state that for many of us it came as a shock that it could collapse. Many people thought that it would soon be restored. I remember receiving an order signed by the Minister that said: "The Ministry has finished its activity and is liquidated."

Fortunately for us, the collapse of the Soviet Union came at the end of the year. This meant that all of the funding for that year had already been received. But the problem was how to fund the following year: where would I be able to get the money to pay the salaries a month later, at the end of January?

Since we had been completely financed by the Ministry in Moscow, it was as if we had been suddenly orphaned.
At that time, the institute had nearly 3,000 employees, many of them highly qualified specialists and scientists who had studied at the best universities and research centers in the USSR. I had to scramble to find sources of money to keep the organization alive and pay all of those salaries.

There were two real sources of financing. One way was to identify some contracts using our old ties with the organizations located in the former Soviet Union. We were successful in signing some contracts with several of these organizations. But this did not solve our problem. We understood that this source was not very reliable and was too weak to enable us to keep our Agency. We knew we had to find reliable, steady sources of funding, and that these needed to be from within the country's budget.

But when I visited several high-ranking officials to ask for money to pay salaries, no one wanted to listen to me. They gave the excuse that our organization wasn't on their lists. I told them that from now on, it had to be on that list. They replied, "We don't know you. You were working with them, so it's your problem." I had to persuade them that it was their problem as well, that it was a problem that related to the whole country. It was important to preserve our scientific and technical potential.

After considerable effort, I was lucky enough to persuade the officials that this agency was important to Azerbaijan. The Ministry of Finance included our agency on their list, and we started to be funded from the national budget.

By then, a lot of our employees (primarily Russian and Armenian) had already left because of the war with Armenia. Some of our Armenian employees went to Russia, some to the States and a few to Armenia. Actually, one of our former employees is now the Director of a Remote Sensing Center that is being organized in Armenia. Many talented Azerbaijani specialists have also left for various reasons, primarily related to the low salaries.

Difficult Period
Those first two or three years after Azerbaijan gained its independence were tough for our organization. When we would create a prototype for a certain device or type of software and offer it to a Ministry or organization, we were told, "Yes, it's very important for us. We need it, but we don't have the money to pay for it."

We tried to find partners abroad, but during those early years, the only partners we knew throughout the world were Russians. Fortunately for them, and maybe for us, too, just four days after we created our Aerospace Agency, President Yeltsin issued a decree on February 25, 1992 about developing a Russian Space Agency. In the midst of the political and economic chaos that the former Soviet republics were experiencing, this decision made it possible to at least identify an entity with whom we could negotiate. It was actually our first big project after Azerbaijan gained its independence.

The aim of the project was to develop a method and corresponding software for recognizing natural objects using space images. Unfortunately, even though we did the work, we did not get paid for it. Their situation at that time was even worse than ours.

They could not pay on time, and when you consider the rate of inflation that was occurring in Russia at the beginning of the 1990s, we received only half of the agreed-upon amount. This "collaboration" continued until the end of 1994 when we decided that we would have to be paid before we could continue to work for them. Part of the money for the work we had completed in 1994 came two years later, in 1996. By that time, because of inflation, the ruble had become "thinner" to the point where it was worth less than one-third of its original value. The other part of our payment was never received at all.

Eventually, we were forced to become self-sufficient. While we were still part of the Soviet Union's Ministry of General Machinery Building, the Ministry told us what to do and gave us the money to do it. All of a sudden, we were isolated. Nobody was telling us what to do.

We were faced with a dilemma. If we continued on our present course, nobody had the money to pay for our projects. So we had to start from zero and take a different course of action.

I came to the conclusion that first of all, we had to carry out the types of research and work that Azerbaijan itself needed. Second, we had to do it by using our own personnel and resources rather than relying upon outside organizations.

In the past, we had been dependent on other aerospace organizations located throughout the Soviet Union. In the USSR, each factory or institute had a main profile of activity. For example, when we were building the X-ray telescope for Mir, to make the detectors, we had to buy special material that was produced solely by a factory in Siberia. All in all, to construct this X-ray telescope, we had contacts with more than 400 different organizations. As an official of the Ministry, I was able to visit those factories and institutions without getting special permission. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, we no longer had ties with those organizations. I became a foreigner for them, and they had no right to discuss any problem with me. Some couldn't even allow me entrance inside their organizations, despite the fact that in some cases we had known each other for quite a long time.

After 1995, there was some stabilization - not just in the agency, but also throughout the Republic, thanks to the efforts of President Aliyev. Once Azerbaijan's economy began to improve, our organization was able to find more work. Today, we focus on developing applications related to remote sensing for various local organizations and Ministries.

For example, we built a special device for Customs that is used for detecting radiation. It's held like a pistol and can be used to identify if someone is trying to bring radioactive materials across our borders. Other devices have been built for the Committee of Meteorology, the Committee of Energy and the State Oil Concern.

A New Focus
Most of our activities today are focused on the application of remote sensing as it relates to certain fields of the economy. For instance, we just finished a two-year project with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that cost $211,000. Actually, Azerbaijan was the first country of the Former Soviet Union to fulfill this kind of project with the FAO.

We purchased about a dozen images from American satellites: 10 pictures from LandSat-5 and several pictures from LandSat-7. We then used these detailed pictures to work out a GIS (Geographic Information System) for agriculture in Azerbaijan. The thematic maps tell us about the country's water resources and soil quality, region by region.

We also use remote sensing images to learn about ecological problems like water and air pollution. Unfortunately in Azerbaijan, we have problems with erosion and salinization of the soil. A lot of forests have been cut down due to our refugee problem. Using images from the air, we can show concretely the dynamics of these environmental problems and then suggest ways in which they can be resolved.

In terms of natural disasters like mudslides, we are working to create a model prognosis to help prevent these disasters from happening. If a mudslide does occur, we provide information and advice to help people mitigate it.

Remote sensing is also used to locate deposits of oil, gas and minerals. We have methods that show us where these resources are likely to be concentrated. This type of work started during the Soviet period and continues today.
Once the occupied territories [Karabakh and seven surrounding areas] are freed from Armenian occupation, we'll be able to use remote sensing devices in airplanes to help locate the estimated 50,000 land mines that are buried in those regions. This will help speed along the restoration process.

But this is just the beginning. There are many more applications that we have the potential to implement, once we have the opportunity.

I am optimistic about the future of our agency. First of all, we have created genuine cooperation among organizations within the country based on "sell-buy" principles. This has become possible because of the sustainable improvement of the economic situation in the country. The future economic situation seems to be even brighter due to the money that the country expects to receive from the exploration of the rich oilfields.

In addition, we have established ties with many international organizations and developed countries. This year we finished a project for "Strengthening Capacity in Inventory of Land Cover / Land Use by Remote Sensing," which was financed by the FAO. As an immediate result of this project, we now have thematic maps of land cover/land use for the whole country at a 1:50,000 scale, through the interpretation of satellite data in accordance with internationally recognized GIS technologies. For the first time, a digital sample of land cover/land use has been performed for the whole country, and a unique database has been generated. I am sure that our collaboration with international organizations will increase in the future, and our specialists and scientists will be able to be involved in numerous international projects.

Now, ten years later, I feel like we're going in the right direction. Azerbaijan's political stability and the rise in its economy have helped us a great deal - these are criteria that are fundamental and critical for scientific work. We have a way to earn money from our projects and, thereby, hang onto our valuable specialists and scientists.

Arif Mehdiyev is General Director of the Azerbaijan National Aerospace Agency and Vice President of the National Academy of Sciences.

Azerbaijan International (9.4) Winter 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2002. All rights reserved.

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