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, my colleague Alison Snyder and I write.
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: 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.
On top of the revenue loss from crewed launches, 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.
- "The [ISS] program was developed in the midst of a complex relationship," says Mike French of the Aerospace Industries Association, 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 Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation.
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