Winter 2001 (9.4)
On Our Own
Azerbaijan's Aerospace Industry
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
is General Director of the Azerbaijan National Aerospace Agency
and Vice President of the National Academy of Sciences.
(9.4) Winter 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2002. All rights reserved.
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