Russia: Space Expansionism Anew?

Russia: Space Expansionism Anew?

Russia, Venus and a new environment 

A recent detection of phosphine gas, a by-product of microbial organisms on Earth, in Venus’ atmosphere precipitated a renewal of Russia’s space aspirations. In September 2020, Russia’s Roscosmos declared Venus a “Russian planet” and announced their intention of sending a national mission to Earth’s closest neighbour, independent from the one planned with the US. After the end of the Cold War, the famous Space Race transformed into intense international collaboration, with Russia and the US at its forefront. Despite losing its launch dominance to new aspiring space powers such as China, Russia maintained its position as the only facilitator of space travel for astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). However, ambitious private companies, most notably Elon Musk’s SpaceX, threaten Moscow’s space travel monopoly. These new developments have inspired the restoration of Russia’s extraterrestrial might, which, in addition to its recent focus on hypersonic weapons systems and the rapid development of a Covid-19 vaccine, indicate a renewed technological competition with the West.

Old adversaries, new collaborators 

During the Cold War era, the former Soviet Union rapidly developed its space capabilities and accomplished many firsts. Russian engineers succeeded in sending the first mission to leave Earth, or Luna 1. In 1957, the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched. Four years later, the Soviet Union sent the first person to fly in space, Yuri Gagarin. The Space Race also initiated Moscow’s Venus ambitions – the Soviet Union was the first to send an exploration mission to Venus and later extensively researched the plane’s surface, climate and atmosphere. Notably, the Soviet apparatus “Venera-13” transmitted a signal to Earth for a record 127 minutes

As the Cold War came to an end, and ideological antagonism declined, space collaboration between Russia, the United States, and other international actors flourished. In 1993, Russia and the United States agreed to collaborate in space and established the International Space Station. Roscosmos is also a part of a lunar mission, known as Luna 27, with the European Space Agency, which works on humankind’s first return to the Moon since 1972 and its eventual colonisation. Furthermore, in 2014 Roscosmos scientists invited their NASA counterparts to participate in the Venera-D project. This mission entails landing and orbital modules and complements former Soviet Union research achievements. 

In addition, Russian-American space cooperation has been critical for space exploration in recent years and for preserving and developing Russia’s space capabilities. Since the suspension of NASA’s Space Shuttle Programme in 2011, Russian Soyuz spacecraft have become the only means of transporting cosmonauts to the ISS. American space crews have since been trained at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Zvyozdny Godorock (or Star City). Later, they would take off from the Baikonur launchpad in Kazakhstan. This has proven to be significant for producing Soyuz spacecrafts and maintaining Russia’s influence over the ISS. 

New space rivals 

As the only country capable of transporting cosmonauts to the ISS, Russia’s space capabilities are challenged by ambitious private space companies. Primarily, SpaceX, a company founded by Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk, has been rapidly developing its launch and space travel capabilities. In the last decade, SpaceX became the first private entity to send a satellite in orbit, to launch a spacecraft, and to send a spacecraft to the ISS among other achievements. In May 2020, it sent humans into orbit and plans to develop space tourism. This poses significant difficulties for Roscosmos, as SpaceX would provide NASA with a cheaper and more convenient way of transporting space crews to the ISS in the future. In comparison to the $80 million per seat in a Soyuz rocket, SpaceX would charge $60 million, which would affect Roscosmos’ $2 billion budget. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Boeing also aim at developing space capabilities. 

In addition, developing and developed countries have rapidly expanded their space programmes and agencies. China is now a global space launch power, while India plans to send a man in orbit by 2022 and send a mission on the Moon in November 2020. Mars exploration ambitions have also increased – the UAE plans to send a robot spacecraft to research Mars, as do the European Space Agency and China. 

Prognosis 

Roscosmos’ commitment to develop and send a mission to Venus and revive the might of former Soviet space exploration, exhibits Russia’s aspirations to contend with rapidly developing competitors from the West. After SpaceX’s success, Roscosmos has attempted to reduce the cost of its Soyuz spacecraft seats by 30% and it also plans to send tourists on the ISS by 2023. In addition to the Luna 27 project, the Space Agency’s Director General Dmitry Rogozin announced Russia’s lunar programme and plans to send its first astronaut on the Moon in 2030. 

Despite these efforts, Russian technological ambitions have focused on rocket science rather than space capabilities in recent years. In 2019, Moscow announced its Avangard hypersonic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear weapon of two megatons. Renewed tech rivalries could also be observed in 2020, with the quick, yet questionable development and application of the Russian coronavirus vaccine, the first of its kind. 

Due to the nature of space research and travel, a contemporary space race is likely to involve both collaboration and competition. Although Roscosmos will attempt to increase its space power and accomplish national milestones in space exploration, it will still cooperate with international partners. The overall technological competition between Moscow and the West, nevertheless, is set to continue and it will have national and global security implications.

Categories: Debate Corner, Eurasia

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