Russia has fallen behind in the conquest of space

Russia’s ambitions for space supremacy have been hit with a painful blow by losing to India. This loss highlights the effects of the country’s international isolation, structural issues, and excessive ambition on its position in the space race.

Recently, Chandrayaan-3, India’s lander, successfully landed on the moon, marking a new milestone in space exploration. India has surpassed Russia in this achievement, as the Russian Luna-25 lander had crashed into the lunar surface just three days prior. It is a symbolic example of Russia’s loss, as it was once a leader in space competition and had technological advantages over the USA.

Today, multiple players are entering the space conquest game, including China, the European Union, India, private companies, Japan, and Israel. While there’s competition, there’s also extensive worldwide cooperation.

The development of space programs involves a massive collaboration effort among numerous research centers and subcontractors. Following the onset of aggression against Ukraine, Russia ceased its involvement in international cooperation. Despite this, the Russian space agency Roscosmos has announced plans to construct its orbital station and spearhead missions to Mars and the Moon. In 1976, the USSR sent its Luna-24 camera to the moon, marking the last successful attempt by the Russian space agency. Since then, modern Russia has made several attempts to replicate this achievement, but without success. In 2011, a Russian rocket destined for the moon failed to reach Earth’s orbit. Despite ten years of preparation, the launch of Luna-25 has been repeatedly postponed. The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, was eager to demonstrate success before India, but their efforts were unsuccessful. The failure to launch Luna-25 was a blow to their prestige.

Luna’s voyage to the moon ended with a big boom

The Luna-25 expedition’s crash occurred during a critical period. Since Russian aggression towards Ukraine started, Roscosmos has been dragged in a way into the war front lines. The sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 impacted the space program hard, and the Luna-25 program faced significant setbacks due to difficulties in obtaining advanced electronics. Meanwhile, Dmitry Rogozin, the Head of the Russian agency Roscosmos until last year, had stated that Russia could manage independently and amaze the world.

Following the attack on Ukraine last year, Russia is facing additional sanctions. As a response, Russia has withdrawn its rockets from the European Space Agency’s cosmodrome in French Guiana. In July of last year, Yuri Borisov, the new Head of Roscosmos, announced that Russia plans to leave the International Space Station (ISS) after 2024. Additionally, Russia has pulled out of the ExoMars Mission, a joint effort to send a spacecraft with a rover to Mars. Moreover, Russia has ceased the supply of engines for US Atlas V missiles.

Roscosmos has stated that it plans to construct a militarized orbital station. However, this announcement comes amid concerns over Russia’s recent testing of anti-satellite weapons in 2021. These weapons pose a significant threat to orbiting satellites and the International Space Station. The test resulted in the creation of uncontrollably circulated debris from the destroyed target in orbit.

Space exploration holds significant military importance for Russia, as demonstrated by the role of satellite communications, orbital surveillance, and target guidance in the conflict in Ukraine. However, Russia requires assistance to finance its pursuit of launching Star Wars, particularly when operating solo and facing international isolation. 

When it comes to rocket production and technological advancement, Russia is falling behind the USA, Europe, India, and China. India’s impressive space program is noteworthy despite the country’s financial, technological, and intellectual resource challenges. India has consistently built its program despite these hurdles since the early 1960s. India collaborated with NASA, the USSR, Russia, and France to launch its first satellite in 1980.

Despite initial failures, India emerged as a strong competitor to Russia in the 1990s, leading to a halt in technology transfer by the Russians. In the 21st century, India continued to launch satellites and research equipment into space in a series of missions.

In 2008, Chandrayaan-1 successfully landed on the moon. Six years later, India became the first country to place a spacecraft into Mars orbit on its first attempt. During the next mission to the moon, India collaborated with Roscosmos, but the program faced constant delays due to poor relations with Russia. Five years ago, the Indian space agency ended cooperation with Moscow and pursued its successful missions. Perhaps due to ambition, Roscosmos aimed to reach the moon before India. However, India plans to send a human-crewed spacecraft with astronauts next year. 

The possibility of Russia’s absence in future space races

American Dragon rockets will transport astronauts to the ISS. Meanwhile, United Launch Alliance, the company behind Atlas rockets, has acquired and stored numerous Russian rocket engines. They have also joined forces with Blue Origin to develop rocket engines for Vulcan missiles, the updated version of Atlas. American Amazon will utilize these rockets to send its telecommunications infrastructure into space. Commercial space flights will result in significant financial losses for the Russians.

In 2014, following the aggression in Crimea, American companies started contemplating and strategizing future space projects that did not involve the Russians. This decision was made due to the belief that Moscow would not be a dependable partner, as it was entering into conflicts with the West. As a result, private space companies have flourished in recent years. Space X, owned by Elon Musk, and Rocket Lab, owned by Peter Beck, lead the way. A year ago, Rogozin threatened that the European space program would collapse without Russia. However, the European Space Agency developed Ariane heavy rocket projects and is collaborating with NASA on a Martian Mission.

Evidently, the Russians are fading in the technological race, as their recent Lunar Mission failed after 47 years. While they still possess technologies inherited from the Soviet conquest of space, such as valuable rocket engines, Roscosmos faces a significant challenge with modern guidance systems and electronics in general.

While the rockets and missiles used by Russia to attack Ukraine can have their unique components replaced with cheaper substitutes from Aliexpress or tied together with zip straps, the same cannot be said for space rockets. As a result, Russia’s distance from the rest of the world in the race for space supremacy will expand. Sanctions such as restrictions on scientists’ travel and participation in international symposia and research will also have an impact. Collaboration between Russian universities and global research centers has already been disrupted.

The imposed sanctions affect a fundamental aspect of the space program’s dual-purpose development. Even basic sanctions, such as updates blocking software, can contribute to this effect. Just one year of isolation will set Russia back. There are indications that the isolation resulting from the aggression towards Ukraine may persist for a more extended period, leading to the possibility of Roscosmos seeking cooperation and technology transfer from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in the future.

Michał Kacewicz/

Translated by PEV