This article originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine. It was updated Jan. 18 to reflect delays in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon schedule.
MOSCOW — There are many valid critiques of U.S. President Donald Trump’s new direction for NASA. Few, if any, would be new. NASA has, for decades, been redirected by nearly every new administration to take office. But Russian government officials saw an opportunity for domestic attention and took a stab at it.
“A ‘resumption’ of flights to the moon? How nice,” Alexey Pushkov, a prominent Russian hawk and chairman of the information policy committee in the country’s upper house in parliament, wrote Dec. 19. “But how are the Americans going to get there without rocket engines? Already they can’t get to the [International Space Station] without ours.”
It was a familiar refrain from the more outspoken, pro-Kremlin circles of Russian officialdom. Never mind the fact that NASA is developing its own new rocket for such missions, or that many U.S. rockets are propelled by domestically manufactured engines — the fact that any American dependency exists has been fodder for cheap domestic messaging in Russia since 2014.
While NASA and its Russian counterpart Roscosmos have managed to keep things professional amid the most drastic deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations since the Cold War, Russian government officials play a different game. Domestic politics here often descends into a spectacle where players compete for standing in public demonstrations of patriotism.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, whose portfolio of responsibilities in government includes oversight and reform of the Russian space industry, could possibly be credited with bringing space exploration into the mix in 2014 when, in response to U.S. sanctions for Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, he suggested NASA use a trampoline to reach the ISS.
Curiously, though perhaps it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, a challenger emerged last month to answer Pushkov and Rogozin. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s outspoken, and sometimes controversial, spokeswoman — Maria Zakharova — added her own twist to the ongoing mockery of American dependence on Russian space technology in a Facebook post.
“Pushkov asked a reasonable question,” Zakharova began, “In my opinion, although the question is logical, the answer is obvious — they will be delivered there by ‘Russian hackers.’ As we all know, they can do anything,” she concluded. The post was more of a commentary on U.S. obsession with Russian hackers than U.S. dependencies, but it was instructive.
And to be fair, Russians were not the only ones to have fun with Trump’s moon declaration. His remarks were met with ridicule in China, too, according to the China’s English-language Global Times news outlet. Social media users there posted jokes about Trump flying to the moon to take a selfie, while others commented on how every U.S. president comes up with such a plan.
Russian officials continue to beat the drum when it comes to U.S. purchases of RD-180 rocket engines for Atlas 5 launches, and the fact that Russia’s Soyuz rocket remains the only crewed means of reaching the International Space Station, but there seems to be very little public discussion about what an end to this state of affairs would mean for Russia’s space industry.
While the U.S. is certainly dependent, for the time being, on the RD-180 rocket engine built by Russia’s Energomash, Russia is also dependent on U.S. purchases of these engines to keep Energomash alive. Domestic projects are creating more demand for Energomash engines in Russia, but the bigger problem for the Russian space program is found aboard the Soyuz spacecraft.
Since the retirement of the U.S. space shuttles in 2012, Russia has been able to charge NASA and its partner agencies up to $70 million per ticket for flights to the ISS and back aboard the three-seat Soyuz. Sometimes foreign astronauts have taken two of those seats at a time.
This amounts to a heavy subsidy for Russia’s manned space launches, says independent Russian space industry analyst Pavel Luzin. Roscosmos will receive 1.4 trillion rubles (almost $24 billion) under the current 2016-2025 space program budget, and roughly half of that will be devoted to manned space efforts, Luzin says.
“In ruble terms, one seat aboard Soyuz will cost up to 5 billion rubles (and the price will go up to $81 million in 2018),” Luzin explained. “So, each American astronaut contributes up to 5 percent of Roscosmos’ annual budget — at least in terms of funding sourced from the federal government via the federal space program.”
The budget cushion provided by NASA and other foreign agencies is soon to disappear, yet no one in Russia seems to be talking about it. Recent NASA statements indicate the agency may stop buying seats on Soyuz after 2019 — the current horizon for purchased seats. It is unclear what will happen after 2019, but the U.S. commercial sector will have a huge impact.
U.S. launch provider (and soon-to-be astronaut transporter) SpaceX has a busy year ahead. In addition to tests of the Falcon Heavy booster, it will conduct two test missions of its crewed Dragon vehicle; the first, in August, will be unmanned, while the second test in December will feature a crew. Presumably, it won’t be long until SpaceX, and its competitor Boeing, are flying American astronauts to the ISS (the U.S. Government Accountability Office warned Jan. 17 that neither Boeing’s or SpaceX’s vehicles may be certified to carry NASA astronauts before late 2019 or early 2020).
When that happens, Russia will lose a valued avenue for trolling the United States.
“Roscosmos will also face a sensitive decline in its income,” Luzin added. “However, the main challenge is thus: what will Russian astronauts do in orbit? Already they do very little, but America pays for a large part of the launches. Without their money, Russia will have to fund it all. This means they’ll have to reevaluate the goals of manned missions (beyond carrying the flag).”