Why Russia is losing out in space / ENG explainer

On July 29, NASA celebrated its 62nd birthday. The US space administration also has another cause for celebration: America is no longer dependent on Russia to deliver astronauts into orbit. That was the only field of space exploration in which Moscow was able to compete with Washington. The head of Roscosmos earns twice as much as the head of NASA, but Russia is still losing ground.

After America’s space shuttles were sent to the museum, for nine whole years, International Space Station crews were transported exclusively by Russian Soyuz spacecraft. As deputy prime minister Sergey Ivanov warned back in 2007, Russia was at risk of becoming a “cosmic cabbie”. Moscow may find itself deprived of that status, too. Why is Russia turning into an outsider?

Cosmic cabbies

On May 31, astronauts were taken to the ISS by the Crew Dragon, manufactured by US businessman Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. It also designed the reusable Falcon-9 rocket that launched the Dragon into orbit. If Western crews can be sent into orbit on Musk’s rockets, Washington won’t keep paying Russia $400 million a year. SpaceX could force Roskosmos out of the “space transportation” market, for astronauts as well as for cargo. It’s nothing personal – launching the Falcon-9 costs $10 million less than the Russian Proton.

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In the 1990s and 2000s, Russia made 40% of all space launches. Cheap, dependable rockets like Rockot, Zenit, Dnyepr, Soyuz, and Proton put vehicles into orbit for the whole world. The turning point came in 2015. After Russia annexed Crimea and started the war in Donbas, the Rockot, Zenit and Dnyepr missiles co-produced with Ukraine vanished from its arsenal. The country plunged into an economic crisis, and launches went down by a third. Meanwhile, China became the world leader, doubling its number of launches.

Russian technology is becoming obsolescent

Russian rockets and ships feature technical designs dating from the 1970s. Elon Musk’s ships, capable of landing with their engines alone, are brand-new technology. The Crew Dragon is not the only reusable US ship. The Dream Chaser orbital plane’s first mission is scheduled for next year. The Boeing X-37B, capable of spending two years in orbit, is already flying to space, and the manned Starliner capsule is also being prepared for flight.

The Russian ship Oryol, set to replace the Soviet Soyuz, has had three name-changes so far, but as yet the public has only seen a plastic model. The Angara rocket, supposed to launch the Oryol into orbit, has been under development for 26 years but has only ever taken one test flight.

China has overtaken Russia in the satellite industry. Its satellite constellation has doubled in five years, while Russia’s has increased by just a third. Russia currently has 169 satellites, China has 363, and the United States has 1,327 – that’s half of all world satellites…

Russia is lagging behind due to its weak electronics industry. Unlike China and the US, Russia produces no smartphones, satnavs, or cosmic-radiation-resistant electronics needed for satellites.

Plans to maintain a foothold in space exploration have also failed. To create a heavy-class rocket; a new manned ship; to launch several orbiting space telescopes; and even to set up an automated moon base… In 2013, the Kremlin pledged to achieve those goals by the end of the decade.

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By 2030, it also planned to build a rocket for interplanetary flights, to bring Martian soil back to Earth, and to prepare to put cosmonauts on the moon. But Roskosmos has yet to complete half of its tasks for 2020, so Vladimir Putin has ordered a “significant revision” of its space strategy.

So, where is the competition flying off to?

Meanwhile, Russia’s competitors are preparing to conquer the moon and Mars. In two years, the Americans will send the VIPER lunar rover to earth’s satellite in search of water. In 2023, NASA plans to build the Gateway space station in lunar orbit, from where astronauts will land on the moon a year later. Construction of a habitable moon base is scheduled for 2028.

The Perseverance rover and first ever mini-helicopter have just blasted off for Mars. NASA plans to land astronauts on Mars in the 2030s.

But Elon Musk has already promised to send astronauts to Mars in 2024, on the Starship spacecraft. The businessman is currently working on another revolutionary project – the Starlink Internet satellite constellation that will be available even out at sea or in a desert.

Beijing also has ambitious plans for space. In 2018, a Chinese rover landed on the dark side of the moon, and China is sending a rover to the Red Planet this year. Beijing intends to create its own orbital station in two years and, in 10 years, an automated base at the moon’s south pole, then send astronauts to it by 2036. For the lunar flights, Beijing is building a new-generation reusable spacecraft.

Why is Russia lagging behind?

Russian space-industry workers’ salaries are ten times lower than their American counterparts. A repairman at Energiya corporation earns 38,000 Russian roubles, or $530. There, an engineer’s salary is $740 a month, while engineers at Boeing earn around $8,500.

No one wants to design or assemble high-quality spacecraft on low salaries. In 2018, there was an oxygen leak on the ISS due to a hole in a Soyuz spacecraft. As it turned out, it had been drilled accidentally by a worker on Earth.

The industry is losing its scientists and experienced workers. Consequently, the number of accidents is on the rise. In the past ten years, 1 in 15 Russian rocket launches have been plagued by failure. In the United States, 1 in 42 launches ended in an accident, and 1 in 24 in China.

Lack of funding is not the only reason for the brain drain and deteriorating production. In the space race, China has overtaken Russia with a comparable budget.

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Shooting off into space is being held back by substandard management, and corruption. In 2015, after not being paid for four months, the builders of the Vostochniy Cosmodrome went on hunger strike. The prosecutor’s office uncovered embezzlement worth $150 million, and filed 140 criminal charges.

Another reason for Russia’s space problems is the Western sanctions imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas – Roscosmos can no longer buy essential parts abroad. Learning to make your own takes time and skill, but the Russian space industry is in short supply of both.

What’s the bottom line?

Disregard for specialists, corruption, and low management standards are the main reasons why Russia has lost its formerly strong position in space. Until the end of the Noughties, the space industry relied on potential accumulated in the Soviet years. But over time, the professionals educated during the Soviet era left, and no new ones took their place.

Beijing’s race into space would’ve been impossible without Chinese electronics manufacturers. The US space industry is being developed by private companies hired by NASA. In Russia, there is little hope from the private sector. Since private property is insecure there, it is unattractive and dangerous for hi-tech businesses. The chances of a Russian Elon Musk ever emerging are extremely slim.

Alyaksandr Papko