By James Bernstein
By all accounts, Russia is losing its unprovoked war against Ukraine. It has lost thousands of troops, spent the equivalent of billions of dollars, and become an international pariah. As a result of the ruinous war, Russia is also losing something that has always been precious to its national pride — its position as a leader in the world’s space programs.
The country that stunned the world — and shook up the United States — with the launch on Oct. 4, 1957, of the satellite Sputnik, is falling further and further behind in civil space exploration, according to experts. Its military space program, however, remains robust, those experts say.
“The Russian space industry is in an obvious state of crisis,” Asif Siddiqi, an authority on Russia’s space program who teaches history at Fordham University, told an industry publication.
Partly to help fund Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin recently said he planned to slash funding for space flight activities at least until 2024. The sharpest cuts will be in manufacturing technology and development. Money for scientific research will be cut entirely.
The decline of the Russian space program is not new. It began after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. That kicked off a brain drain from Russian. The need to fund the Ukraine war only accelerated the degradation of Russian space efforts.
Additionally, jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has made allegations of widespread corruption across the country’s space industry, with money disappearing into the hands of oligarchs.
Russia does not have a rover on the far side of the moon. China does. It does not have orbiters circling Mars. China, Indian and the United Arab Emirates do.
Russia does not have a fleet of space telescopes, as does the United States.
“We’ve fallen behind on the science program,” said Igor Marinin, head of the Russian industry publication Novosti Kosmonavtiki. “We’ve forgotten how to make and fly unmanned probes.”
Of course, it was not always this way. The United States and much of the world trembled when the Soviets put Sputnik into space, leading politicians and military leaders to proclaim that we were failing in space.
Concern deepened in 1961, when the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly to outer space, aboard the Vostok 1 capsule. He completed one orbit of Earth. Meanwhile, as the American novelist Tom Wolfe wrote in his highly acclaimed book, “The Right Stuff,” “our rockets kept exploding” on the launch pad.
But what does the current demise of Russia’s space program mean for the United States? John Logsdon, who teaches at George Washington University and who is often called the “dean of space policy,” said in a phone interview last week that we can no longer count on the Russians as partners on the International Space Station, or on other space projects in the future. Russian cosmonauts still fly aboard the space station, but Russia has said that it even plans to withdraw from that program.
For the United States, Logsdon said, the new competitor is China. The Chinese program has overseen the development and launch of ballistic missiles, thousands of satellites, manned space flight and a space station, and it plans to explore the Moon, Mars and the wider solar system.
In a display of its growing prowess, China launched a cargo mission to its newly completed space station last weekend. The 35-foot-long cargo spacecraft docked Nov. 12 with the Tiangong station on Saturday, according to a Chinese news release. As is typical of the country’s news media, few details were released publicly. But according to space experts, the freighter was carrying propellant for the space station, as well as some scientific experiments.
In recent months, China launched two modules to join its already orbiting space station, which is about 20 percent large than the U.S.- and European-built International Space Station. It is expected to be occupied and operational for at least 10 years.
Our approach to China in space has been entirely negative. In 2011, Congress banned NASA from hosting Chinese visitors at U.S. space facilities. Two years later, Congress banned Chinese nationals from entering NASA facilities without a waiver from NASA.
Nevertheless, Logsdon said, “The Chinese space program is advancing.”
James Bernstein is editor of the Long Beach Herald. Comments about this column? firstname.lastname@example.org.