Russian space program falls back to Earth

The new crew arrived at the International Space Station last week, all smiles and flowing hair. There was, as usual, a small welcoming ceremony, with heartfelt remarks from the newcomers broadcast live for the people they left behind on Earth. A few of the astronauts hovered above the others and turned, hanging like bats, so that their beaming faces fit into the frame.

But this last trip was different: for the first time, a Russian cosmonaut had traveled to the space station aboard an American SpaceX capsule launched into orbit from Florida. The ride was the result of a new seat exchange arrangement between the United States and Russia. Prior to 2020, when NASA began using SpaceX to reach the ISS, the space agency relied solely on Russia’s Soyuz astronaut transport system, paying millions of dollars per seat. From now on, American astronauts will fly on Soyuz and Russian cosmonauts on SpaceX, without exchange of money between the two countries.

Russian and American space programs have been tangled from the start, and they remain linked now, even as relations between the two countries deteriorate because of the ongoing war in Ukraine. The two have no choice but to work together: the ISS is a shared space, with the United States and Russia its main partners and Russia responsible for maintaining the station’s orbit.

Beyond the ISS, however, Russia’s space portfolio isn’t all that great these days. Although cosmonauts regularly fly into orbit, Russia does not have rovers on the far side of the Moon, like China, or orbiters around Mars, like India and the United Arab Emirates. It does not have a fleet of space telescopes like the United States. The Soviet Union was the first to send a human being into space decades ago, and its early accomplishments are a source of national pride. But the Russian space program has to the point of death for years, plagued by scattered budgets. And that was before Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine: some of the space plans the country still had in the works are falling apart. Today, the Russian space effort is perhaps more adrift than ever.


All the satellites around the Earth, thousands and thousands of them, whether navigational or spy, can trace their history back to Sputnik. When the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into orbit 65 years ago, it ushered in a new era of technology and set the tone for the space race. Within a few years, the Soviet Union had begun launching spacecraft to the Moon, where they intentionally crashed on the surface, sprinkling material onto the regolith in a highly explosive first. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space, beating Americans by less than a month. But by the end of the decade, the United States had effectively won the race: when American astronauts launched to the Moon, the Soviet Union was always try to understand how to prevent his rocket from exploding.

Over the next few years, the Soviets put the first ever lander on Mars, which transmitted for about 20 seconds before cutting out, and sent a series of missions to Venus. They built their own space shuttle, which only flew onceand built a space station that exploited for 15 years before being abandoned at sea. The fall of the Soviet Union led to less influence on the world stage, but Russia remained a key player in space. In 1998, Roscosmos, the post-Soviet space agency, was helping the United States assemble the ISS piece by piece. For years it was the only nation capable of transporting people to the ISS.

These space successes have become a significant element of Russia’s national identity. “Space exploration is one of two benchmarks in recent history” – the other being the Soviet Union victory in World War II“which enjoys a broad consensus among Russians and defines many characteristics of Russian political culture,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russian space policy analyst. writing. In recent years, after Russia’s takeover of Crimea and the resulting international reaction, the effort has become “less innovative and more militarily focused, while lacking a clear future direction”. , James Clay Moltz, professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, wrote. Last year, Russia carried out a missile test to blow up a missing satellite, producing debris that passed dangerously close to the ISS. The space program is also operating on a shrinking budget. “Russia is struggling to find a formula for space success in the 21st century,” Moltz wrote in 2020.

Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine only made matters worse. Fallout from the war further reduced the country’s space portfolio; sanctions have included U.S. measures intended for “degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program.” Russia has long hoped to revive its lunar efforts and possibly get people to the surface, but the European Space Agency, its partner in the effort, has took of his participation due to the war in Ukraine. Europe has also kicked Russia out of the effort to send a new rover to Mars to search for signs of ancient life. National space organizations and private space companies abandoned Russian launch services on more than a dozen occasions, looking for other suppliers. Russia “risks being completely left behind in the increasingly competitive market for commercial space launches,” Jeremy Grunert, an Air Force lawyer specializing in military and space law, wrote recently.

Roscosmos seeks to launch into low Earth orbit on its own and build a new space station, with the launch of the first module around 2028, and more so in 2030, the year the United States wants to start phasing out the ISS. But the sanctions have hampered the development of Russian space station hardware, which “needs to be redesigned, as there will be no access to the western electronics the designers originally had in mind”, Luzin said. wrote. “It is obvious that the Russian orbital station project is both very ambitious and largely unfeasible given the current circumstances.” During a press conference held last week after the launch of cosmonaut Anna Kikina on SpaceX, Sergei Krikalev, a former cosmonaut who is executive director of Roscosmos’ human spaceflight program, Told reporters, “We know it’s not going to happen very quickly.” Russia, he said, could “discuss extending our partnership in the ISS”.

If Russia were to jump ship sooner, it would have no spaceflight program to speak of. “We have to keep in mind that if we stop manned spaceflight for several years, it will be very difficult to restore what we achieved afterwards,” said Vladimir Solovyov, former cosmonaut and flight director for the Russian side. from the ISS. said in a Roscosmos interview this summer. Russia is therefore likely to stay on the ISS for as long as possible, especially as the rest of its space efforts wither away. Not all of Russia’s space goals have been called into question. The country is working with China to build a moon base by the 2030s. Although China has called for Russia to end its war against Ukraine, it expressed his support for their future cooperation in space exploration.

After Kikina arrived on the ISS last week, taking off in an American-built capsule, sleeker and more spacious than the Russian Soyuz, I wondered if she could say something about what is happening in her country of origin. We shouldn’t assume that a professional astronaut shares his president’s beliefs, even though earlier this year a trio of cosmonauts had posed for pictures on the ISS with a flag in support of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine (NASA responded with saying that he “strongly rebukes” the display). But Kikina, the only woman in the Russian cosmonaut corps, just thanked her family and the crews she worked with, and restrained a small handmade doll in homage to her hometown of Novosibirsk. Meanwhile, 250 miles below, war raged, weakening Russia’s position as a space nation.

A force that dominated the early days of humanity’s race to reach the stars, that set the tone for the history books, is now at risk of being extinguished by a ground war on Earth. In the years to come, Russia may no longer be considered a space power at all; in fact, some observers are make that claim now.

Russia’s space future matters deeply to Russia itself, of course, but it also concerns the rest of the world. The country, uneasy in the shadow of other space powers, could double down on its military uses of space, threatening an already precarious arena. And while space exploration is an image-building activity, it has consequences that transcend national borders – illuminating discoveries about the universe and our place in it, and remarkable demonstrations of what beings Humans can do with a little rocket fuel and some curiosity, in the skies above Earth and far beyond. With Russia’s potential downfall as a space power, humanity’s potential in the cosmos may dwindle, and a once-great participant who could have further propelled the exploration of the cosmos will instead be left out of the effort.

Ryan H. Bowman