The Russian Space Program
Last Monday, the brand-new crew, complete with beaming faces and loose hair, landed at the International Space Station. As per usual, there was a brief welcoming ceremony, during which the newcomers gave moving speeches that were streamed live for the people they had left behind on Earth. To fit their glowing faces into the picture, a few of the astronauts floated above the others and turned upside down, dangling like bats.
The most recent voyage, however, was unique because it marked the first time a Russian cosmonaut had boarded an American SpaceX capsule that had been launched into orbit from Florida. A new seat-swapping agreement between the United States and Russia led to the ride.
Prior to 2020, when NASA began utilizing SpaceX to reach the International Space Station, the space agency entirely relied on Russia’s Soyuz astronaut-transport system, spending millions of dollars per seat. Now, without any exchange of currency, American astronauts will fly on Soyuz and Russian cosmonauts will fly on SpaceX.
The Russian and American space programs have been intertwined from the start, and they continue to be so even as bilateral ties deteriorate due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Since the ISS is a shared space whose primary partners are the United States and Russia, and Russia is in charge of maintaining the station’s orbit, the two can do nothing but cooperate.
But outside of the ISS, Russia’s space portfolio isn’t exactly opulent these days. Russia does not have a rover on the far side of the moon like China has or orbiters orbiting Mars-like India and the United Arab Emirates do, despite the fact that cosmonauts regularly enter orbit. Like the US, it lacks a fleet of space telescopes. Years ago, the Soviet Union was the first country to send a human into space, and this early success is still a source of great pride for the country today.
However, due to tight finances, the Russian space program has been stagnant for years. And that was prior to Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine: Some of the country’s ongoing space programs are disintegrating. The Russian space program might be more lost than ever right now.
All of the Earth’s satellites, thousands of them, whether they are spying or navigational, can trace their origins to Sputnik. The first man-made satellite was put into orbit by the Soviet Union 65 years ago, ushering in a new era of technology and igniting the space race. Within a few years, the Soviet Union began sending satellites to the moon, where they would purposefully crash on the surface and scatter equipment across the regolith in a truly revolutionary first.
Yuri Gagarin was the first person to visit space in 1961, surpassing Americans by a few days. The Soviet Union was still attempting to figure out how to prevent their rocket from exploding when American astronauts launched to the moon, ultimately giving the U.S. the victory by the decade’s end.
The Soviet Union launched other trips to Venus in the years that followed, as well as the first-ever lander on Mars, which broadcast for roughly 20 seconds before going dark. They constructed a space station that ran for 15 years before being abandoned into the ocean and their own space shuttle, which made one flight.
The impact of the Soviet Union’s collapse on the global scene diminished, but Russia remained a significant player in space. By 1998, Roscosmos, the post-Soviet space agency, was assisting the United States in the piecemeal construction of the ISS. It was the only country for many years that could fly people to the ISS.
These achievements in space have contributed significantly to Russia’s sense of national identity. According to Pavel Luzin, a Russian space-policy analyst, “space exploration is one of the two reference points in recent history”—the other being the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II—that “enjoys broad support among Russians and defines many elements of Russian political culture.”
The effort has recently changed, becoming “less innovative and more militarily focused, while lacking a clear future direction,” according to James Clay Moltz, a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ensuing international outcry. Russia used a missile last year to destroy a retired satellite, and the resultant debris came perilously close to the International Space Station.
The budget for the space program is also getting smaller. In 2020, Moltz stated that “Russia is struggling to develop a recipe for space success in the 21st century.”
The situation has only gotten worse since Russia invaded Ukraine in full. The war’s aftermath has further restricted the nation’s space program, and U.S. sanctions have included actions aimed at “degrading their aerospace industry, particularly their space program.”
Russia had long intended to revive its lunar activities and eventually land people on the surface, but its partner in the mission, the European Space Agency, has withdrawn due to the conflict in Ukraine. Russia has also been expelled from the mission to send a robotic rover to Mars in order to look for evidence of prehistoric life.
Russian launch services have been dropped by both national space organizations and private space enterprises more than a dozen times in favor of different suppliers. According to Jeremy Grunert, an Air Force attorney who specializes in military and space law, Russia “risks being entirely left behind in the increasingly competitive commercial space-launch business.”
In 2030—the year the United States wants to begin decommissioning the ISS—Roscosmos plans to launch its first module into low-Earth orbit and begin construction of a new space station. The construction of Russia’s space station hardware has been hampered by sanctions, though, and Luzin noted that it “must be altered, as there will be no access to the Western electronics that the designers had had in mind.”
Given the current situation, it is clear that the Russian orbital station proposal is both exceedingly ambitious and essentially impractical. We realize it is not going to happen very quickly, said Sergei Krikalev, the executive director of Roscosmos’s human spaceflight program, addressed reporters at a news conference held last week following the launch of astronaut Anna Kikina on SpaceX. He suggested that Russia and the ISS “consider expanding our relationship.”
Russia wouldn’t have much of a spaceflight program if it abandoned ship early. Vladimir Solovyov, a former cosmonaut and the mission director for the Russian side of the ISS, said in an interview with Roscosmos this summer, “We must keep in mind that if we halt manned flights for several years, it will be very difficult to restore what we have achieved afterward.”
Therefore, given that the other of its space programs are failing, Russia will probably want to prolong its stay on the ISS. Not all of Russia’s space objectives remain intact. By the 2030s, the nation will have a lunar base thanks to cooperation with China. China has urged Russia to halt its conflict with Ukraine, but it has also backed future space exploration collaboration between the two countries.
I wondered if Kikina might comment on the situation in her native country when she arrived on the ISS last week in an American-built capsule that was sleeker and roomier than the Russian Soyuz. Although earlier this year, a trio of cosmonauts posed for photos on the International Space Station with a flag in support of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine (NASA responded by saying that it “strongly rebukes” the display), we shouldn’t assume that any professional spacefarer shares the views of her president.
To honor her hometown of Novosibirsk, Kikina, the only woman in Russia’s cosmonaut corps, simply thanked her family and the crews she worked with while holding up a small handcrafted doll. The battle continued below, 250 miles away, eroding Russia’s position as a spacefaring nation.
A force that dominated the early stages of humanity’s quest to colonize other planets and set the tone for history is now in danger of igniting due to a land war on Earth. In fact, some commentators already claim that Russia won’t be regarded as a space power at all in the upcoming years.
Naturally, Russia’s future in space is extremely important to the country, but it also has global implications. The nation, uneasy in the presence of other space powers, would intensify its military use of space, endangering an already unstable situation.
While space exploration is a prestige-enhancing activity, it also has far-reaching effects, revealing new truths about the universe and our place in it and inspiring examples of what humans are capable of when given a little rocket fuel and a little bit of curiosity, in the skies above Earth and far beyond.
Humanity’s potential in the cosmos may be reduced by Russia’s potential demise as a space force, and a once powerful player who could have advanced cosmic exploration will be excluded from the project instead.