‘How do you like that, Elon Musk?’ Explaining a Russian obsession

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The Russian space agency’s first official reaction to the successful March 3 docking of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft with the International Space Station congratulated NASA but didn’t mention SpaceX or its founder, Elon Musk.

On the one hand, a little petulance is understandable considering Crew Dragon — and Boeing’s CST-100 — will soon end the monopoly Roscosmos has held on ISS crew access since the U.S. space shuttle retired in 2011. But on the other hand, Roscosmos, its director Dmitry Rogozin and Russians at large appear to crave Musk’s approval.

Four days after Crew Dragon’s successful docking, Musk shared with his 25 million Twitter followers an Ars Technica story headlined “Russia’s passive-aggressive reaction to SpaceX may mask a deeper truth.” The story noted that in addition to leaving SpaceX out of its congratulatory tweet, Roscosmos had also been ”throwing small bits of shade here and there” such as when it shared photos of Cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, NASA’s Anne McClain, and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques wearing protective masks as a precaution against unexpected off-gassing from the new visiting vehicle. “For the first time in the history of the station, the crew worked in Russian-made IPK gas masks,” Roscosmos tweeted.

Perhaps to ease the sting, Musk praised Russia’s space know-how when he tweeted the Ars Technica article: “Russia has excellent rocket engineering & best engine currently flying. Reusable version of their new Angara rocket would be great.” Rogozin, quick to boast, retweeted Musk: “Well you can’t argue with Elon here :)”

A day later, Rogozin finally tweeted his congratulations at Musk, setting off a new round of Twitter absurdity. Rogozin recently made his Twitter account private, so Roscosmos has taken to reposting Rogozin’s tweets from the agency’s main account. Musk, who doesn’t appear to follow Rogozin on Twitter, finally responded once Roscosmos reposted the director’s tweet.

“Thank you on behalf of SpaceX! We have always admired your rocket/spacecraft technology,” Musk said in reply. “[The] NK-33 & RD 170/180 are exceptional,” he said in another. Both were re-tweeted by Rogozin. Had this ended here, it could be chalked up to friendly platitudes between space industry leaders. But it didn’t end here.

Rather, Russian state media swung into action, running headlines such as “Elon Musk says Russian rocket science is first class.” Figures including Russia Today chief Margarita Simonyan tweeted screen shots of Musk’s praise and invoked a popular, mostly tongue-in-cheek Russian meme: “How do you like that, Elon Musk,” which is typically reserved for videos showing Russian genius for “innovation” (i.e. finding creative ways to keep decrepit machines like Soviet-made cars in service).

The Musk obsession is part of a larger trend in the modern U.S.-Russia online dialogue. For the past five years, Russian officials, pundits and ordinary social media users have expended significant energy denouncing the West, only to rejoice in near unison when a prominent Western figure says something positive about Russian technology or nuclear weapons. Especially nuclear weapons.

Musk is arguably the second most common object of this phenomenon, though it works a little differently in his case. Much ink is spilled reassuring Russians that their space technology is indeed first class, and Russian officials often deride SpaceX and Musk. But when Musk himself says that Russia has the best rocket engines in the world, state media treat it as front page news — confirmation of their propaganda lines.

Sometimes this phenomenon doesn’t even require Musk’s direct involvement. Russian media can come up with some strange story lines. For example, after last year’s successful Falcon Heavy test flight, several Russian commentators and journalists claimed the vehicle’s 27 engines vindicated Soviet rocket designer Sergei Korolev, whose use of 30 engines in the first stage of his doomed N1 moon rocket is often derided as a critical design flaw.

They also note the grid fins on reusable Falcon rockets are a Soviet innovation.

Ultimately, however, this all has very little to do with space and everything to do with modern Russia. And headlines denouncing SpaceX, reveling in Musk’s attention, or claiming ultimate superiority will not save a struggling Russian space program.