May 26, 2020 - Science

A reckoning for Russia's space program

Illustration of a space rocket shooting out of an opened Russian doll.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

SpaceX's first attempt at launching astronauts from American soil this week is a historic moment that will stress the decades-long relationship between the U.S. and Russia in space.

Why it matters: Since the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia have collaborated intimately in space. As the U.S. regains the ability to launch people with its own rockets, the future of Russia's already struggling civil space program — and how the U.S. will collaborate with it — is unclear.

Where it stands: The U.S. and Russia are locked in a state of mutual dependence. NASA needs Russian rockets, and Roscosmos, Russia's state-run space agency and NASA counterpart, needs U.S. money.

  • For nine years, Russian rockets have been the only ride to orbit for U.S. astronauts.
  • A seat on the Soyuz rocket, which experts say hasn't evolved much since the 1960s, cost NASA $80 million on average in recent years.
  • Roscosmos's 2020 budget is the equivalent of roughly $1.7 billion; in 2014, it was about $5 billion.
  • NASA, with a 2020 budget of $22.6 billion, spent approximately $1 billion between 2017 — when SpaceX and Boeing were initially expected to start flying astronauts — and 2019 to fly its people on the Soyuz.

What's happening: If SpaceX — and Boeing, which has its own crewed spacecraft program and contract with NASA — can deliver astronauts to space, the U.S. plans to stop purchasing flights from Russia.

  • NASA just bought what the agency expects to be its last purchased seat for $90 million.
  • Instead, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine hopes NASA and Russia will trade seats on flights with one another instead of paying for them, maintaining redundancy and the relationship in the process.
  • "If we don't launch on their rockets and they don't launch on our rockets, we could end up in a situation where the only people on the space station would be Americans or the only people on the space station would be Russian," Bridenstine told Axios during a media roundtable this month.

Still, Roscosmos is about to lose a significant revenue stream.

"The price we pay for the Soyuz is cash that is a significant revenue generator for Russia. A pretty big portion of it probably funds Russian space activity and it will probably be a pretty big cut in revenue."
— Brian Weeden of Secure World Foundation

On top of that, Russia's program has taken several other hits recently.

"It is a nightmare scenario for the Russian space agency,” one industry expert tells Axios. "We’re building a replacement to every rocket and spacecraft they provide."

What they're saying: Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos, accused SpaceX of predatory pricing to squeeze others out of the launch industry.

  • In April, Rogozin told Russian President Vladimir Putin the agency is lowering its launch cost "by more than 30%" to better compete in the international market.
  • Roscosmos did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

What to watch: Experts say Russia could turn to existing partners — the Europeans, Canadians and Japanese, for example — as customers. It could also turn to tourists and other governments looking to get into space (the UAE, for one). But those are small markets.

  • They could also look to China, but China has its own technology and plans in motion, including a space station, a lunar orbiter and more.
  • "If they went to China, it would be like doing it to annoy the person I want to be friends with so they ask me to come back," Weeden says.

Russia is reportedly interested in participating in the planned Artemis program to send people back to the Moon.

  • When the U.S. and Russia each have launch capabilities again, that will take them back to the original model for how the ISS partnership should work and potentially reestablish opportunities for cooperation, says Mike French of the Aerospace Industries Association.
  • "The [ISS] program was developed in the midst of a complex relationship," says French, who says the same shouldn't be ruled out because of today's geopolitical landscape.

The big question: "Are we going to go back to the Great Powers having individual space programs and everyone picks teams, or is there still an opportunity for everyone to collaborate on one big program?" asks Weeden.

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