60 years after Sputnik, Russia is lost in space

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MOSCOW — Just over 30 years after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, the nation that opened the space race stood on the precipice of a second golden age of space exploration. A major program, the Energia heavy booster rocket and the Buran space shuttle, was nearing completion — making its maiden flight in November 1988.

Another three decades later, on the 60th anniversary of Sputnik 1, the Russian space program is a shadow of its Soviet predecessor. The Energia-Buran project, its last major accomplishment, flew just once before the fall of communism gutted Moscow’s space program. For nearly three decades now, the Russian space industry has been in a state of triage, teetering on collapse.

A replica of the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1. Credit: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
A replica of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1. Credit: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

But the Russian space program has consistently defied the dire predictions of those foretelling an imminent end to the program. Today, amid a major effort to reform and reorganize the Russian space industry under the new Roscosmos state corporation, there are signs that the bleeding has been slowed. But major questions about Russia’s future in space linger.

“Russia’s space industry is in deep crisis,” says Pavel Luzin, a Russian space industry expert and CEO of research startup Under Mad Trends. “We are able to maintain some of our capabilities, especially military ones, but without significant reforms we will be unable to go further. Soon, Russia will face a choice: either change itself or lose its space capabilities.”

Why do it?

To understand the current state of the Russian space program, it is important to take stock of why Moscow pursues space activities at all. Generally speaking, the Russian space program today — like its Soviet predecessor — is primarily focused on the military applications of space technology. Almost all Russian space technology was built for or derived from military purposes.

This was true from the very beginning. The R-7 rocket that launched Sputnik in 1957 was itself a modified ICBM, constructed for the Soviet Union’s fledgling nuclear program. The Soyuz launch vehicle used today to fly to the International Space Station was derived from the R-7. The Proton rocket, too, was derived from an ICBM. Soviet space stations began as military outposts.

Only recently has modern Russia began in earnest to develop new space technology, but for the moment the majority of its assets have military heritage. Looking at Moscow’s satellite constellation, according to open source estimates, 80 of its 134 spacecraft on orbit are military hardware, says Luzin. In this way, the Russian program looks very similar to the Soviet one.

The major difference is the political and ideological context that amplified those efforts into an ambitious, broad-spectrum space program that launched Sputnik, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first space stations, and the Energia-Buran project — as well as a wealth of scientific missions to Venus and other far-off locales. Simply put: modern Russia lacks political rationale to do more than it does.

Loss of vision

The major challenge facing the Russian space program today is lack of vision. The Soviet Union, an ideological superpower, had very clear reasons to push forward into space: Communism was humanity’s future, they believed, and that future was in space. The Cold War gave additional ideological impetus, as space could demonstrate the superiority of their system.

“The space race gave people a dream, a vision: space would be a place where the new man of the future, the communist man, would live, explore and create,” explains Ivan Kosenkov, an analyst at the Skolkovo Space Cluster — the epicenter of modern Russia’s private space efforts. “This motivated people to work hard and achieve goals faster than any time since then.”

Post-Soviet Russia is not an ideological nation. In many ways, it is a nostalgic nation. This nostalgia has been expertly co-opted by the government under President Vladimir Putin. Under him, Russians largely draw pride from looking back, rather than looking forward. And in this regard, the space program has already provided what it needs to.

Yury Gagarin is a national hero on the level of Peter the Great and Stalin. The iconography of Soviet space achievements litters Moscow to this day. And a 2015 survey conducted by the state-owned VTsIOM pollster found that 87 percent of respondents supported Russia’s presence in space — far outpacing public support for space exploration in the United States (A 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that just 68 percent of Americans viewed NASA favorably).

Earthly concerns

Russia’s priorities in space today are far more grounded that its Soviet predecessor. The primary task for the Russian space industry is to retain Soviet-era capabilities. These efforts since at least 2014 have been enshrined in the massive reorganization and consolidation of the space industry under Roscosmos, which in 2015 became a state-owned corporation.

These capabilities are important for Russia from a national security standpoint.

“During the Cold War,” says Kosenkov, “the Soviet Union’s survival was largely dependent on the success of the nuclear program and the space program, which together enabled the development of a nuclear deterrent for the country and allowing the USSR to achieve parity in the field of weapons of mass destruction with the United States.”

This logic is mostly unchanged today. Nuclear missiles remain Russia’s only real guarantee of national defense. Its territory is simply too large to reasonably defend conventionally. But there is little, if anything, left to develop other that new ICBMs and new rockets — efforts that Russia struggles with now but is making progress. Exploration and science efforts have withered.

“Scientific space activity and space exploration were always a kind of ‘side effect’ of the military and political purposes of the U.S.-Soviet space race,” Luzin says. “Even now, space exploration and space science are not Russia’s priorities. That is why we have such a decline. Without commercial and scientific achievements, it is hard to lead in technology and industry.”

However, Kosenkov argues that the situation isn’t that dire.

“Yes, the pace of space exploration has slowed significantly in light of the lack of interest from the state and a lack of vision for exploration,” Kosenkov says. Russia is one of three nations capable of launching humans into space, the Glonass navigation system is used by iPhones, and Russian Earth-observation and meteorology satellites contribute greatly to science and weather forecasting.

“Just take a look at the photos taken by the Electro-L satellite,” Kosenkov says. “They were acknowledged by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as one of the best meteorological spacecraft out there.”

10-year Outlook

Still, Russia contributes less to space science than the United States. And the situation with science and exploration is not expected to radically improve under the new Roscosmos structure. For starters, Russia’s projected spending on space over the next decade has been radically downsized.

In 2014, when efforts to create a 10-year plan for space began, officials spoke of a 3.4 trillion ruble (then $70 billion) budget. But that proposal spent two years in government offices being trimmed and rewritten as Russia’s economy felt the twin effects of a global decline in oil prices and Western sanctions imposed for the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

When in 2016 the 10-year plan was finally approved by the government, the budget stood at a mere 1.4 trillion (then $20 billion). And science was far from the nation’s top priority in space. According to the program, the key areas of Roscosmos’ focus over the next decade will be satellites, streamlining rocket production with an eye on competing with the likes of SpaceX, whose billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk is fueled by a drive to colonize Mars — with or without government assistance.

It remains unclear just how Roscosmos intends to compete with the rise of Western commercial launch companies, which are already eroding Russia’s traditionally dominant share of the commercial launch market. No one really knows what Russia’s production costs are, and companies like SpaceX can outcompete just by cost-cutting.

During the late 1990s transtion from Mir to the International Space Station, necessity compelled Russia’s space program to embrace a freewheeling cowboy capitalism. It leased Mir’s final days to a U.S. startup, began to fly Western millionaires to ISS, and cut deals with Pizza Hut and RadioShack to film commercials in orbit.

Although efforts are underway to develop a true, sustainable commercial space industry in Russia, the program is conservative and highly government dependent.

“Roscosmos struggles to become more agile, compact and market-oriented amid budget cuts,” Kosenkov, who is actively involved in private space efforts in Russia, says. “It seems to embrace new practices, like open innovations, and providing venture capital (only in 2017 did it establish a venture fund). And as a corporation Roscosmos can now claim a private sector exists.”

But institutional problems across Russia will limit efforts for Roscosmos to keep up with commercial trends in space. The industry remains heavily dependent on the government, and the workforce itself is aging along with the enterprises that build Russian space hardware. A funding and legal environment do not yet exist for space startups to fully flourish.

“Without real changes,” Luzin argues, “without the liberalization of domestic politics and the economy, we will not even be able to repeat Soviet achievements in space. Our institutions contradict the idea of space exploration. Yes, we can maintain our military space capabilities, but we will not be able to go further, or make our industry effective and profitable.”

For Russia, it seems, a second golden age of space exploration may be further away than Sputnik 1.