The Russian space program doesn’t get a lot of great press these days. The big news is not Russia but the rise of a new generation of players—from countries such as China and India making ambitious advances to billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos aiming for the moon and Mars. And even when the Russian space program makes the headlines, it’s often been for less-than-stellar news.
It’s not just the headlines. Many space policy analysts, too, are counting out the country that gave us Sputnik, at least in terms of breaking new ground. As the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, John Logsdon, noted, “Their budget is not adequate to maintain a world-class space effort across the board.”
To be sure, even critics acknowledge that the Russian space program, led by its national space agency Roscosmos, remains quite active. In 2014 and 2015, Russia carried out more space launches than any other country in the world, 32 and 26 respectively. As of now, Russia is the only nation on Earth that can regularly launch humans into space and bring them back, blasting off about four crews every year to the International Space Station. (The Chinese can launch people into space, too, but their pace has been glacial at best.) In fact, at any given time in the past 16 years, there has been a Russian cosmonaut in space. Of the six people on board ISS right now, three are Russian. And, controversially, since the end of the U.S. shuttle program in 2011, American astronauts have to hitch rides with their fellow cosmonauts. It can get a bit awkward.
Despite being the only game in town as far as regular human access to space, Roscosmos has been plagued by serious problems that don’t bode well for the future. To get a sense of the challenges it faces these days, it’s worth revisiting how the country’s position in space declined so dramatically from its Soviet glory days.
For a time in the late ’50s and early ’60s, it seemed that the Soviets could do no wrong. At nearly every step of the way, the Soviets were first in everything: first to get a satellite into orbit (Sputnik), the first to launch a man into space (Yuri Gagarin), the first to launch a woman (Valentina Tereshkova), and the first to complete a human spacewalk (Alexei Leonov). The feeling of national and public humiliation at the hands of the Russians triggered by these achievements prompted President John F. Kennedy to push for an expensive and unprecedented project to land an American on the moon by the end of the decade.
After losing the moon race in 1969, the Soviets refocused their attention on robotic missions to the moon and Venus and long-term stations in Earth orbit. In the early ’70s, they sent the first remote-controlled rovers, the Lunokhods, to the moon. Later, through the ’70s and ’80s, they sent cosmonauts to orbital outposts such as Salyut and Mir for months and, in some cases, more than a year, in order to meticulously study the effects of microgravity on the human body. Such missions may not have been much in the public eye, but even out of the race, the Russians were still steadily gaining important expertise NASA lacked.
Unsurprisingly, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 sent the space program into a freefall. Manpower fled, and infrastructure began to crumble. But the Russians kept their strong foothold in spaceflight by entering into a multinational agreement (led mainly by the U.S.) to build a new giant outpost in orbit, the International Space Station, motivated partly to keep Russian space companies from going under. Whereas competition was the flavor of the Cold War, cooperation was the new motto in the 1990s. As part of this joint effort, the Russians agreed to provide key hardware for the ISS, including building and launching the core modules of the station and offering their venerable Soyuz taxi ships to carry crews to and from the outpost. They also sold their spacefaring expertise on the international market, most notably offering to rocket foreign telecommunications satellites into orbit at a time where few could do so, or at least do so cheaply and efficiently. This, alongside the ISS ferrying service, continued to be a hallmark of the program. Just last year they launched a whole spectrum of satellites for European clients, plus the usual assortment of domestic Russian scientific and military satellites.
Yet, despite maintaining a presence in space, Roscosmos has been beset with corruption, mismanagement, and crony capitalism that is the hallmark of the larger post-Soviet economy. In a tech sector that needs to meet very high standards, these problems have led the workforce on the ground to cut corners. In the past six years, the Russian space program has seen an abysmal 15 rocket failures. Some of these have been for high-profile customers such as Mexico and Intelsat. Some have carried expensive space probes such as the Fobos-Grunt, an ambitious probe meant to land on Phobos, the Martian moon, but that never even left Earth orbit.
Corruption scandals (including a director accused of embezzlement who was arrested while driving his diamond-encrusted Mercedes) severely set back the construction of the new Vostochny Cosmodrome, a new $3 billion space launch site in the country’s far east. Without a replacement, the Russians have had to continue to rely on their Soviet-era launch site in Baikonur, Kazakhstan—and pay the now-independent former bloc nation $115 million every year to lease. The delays were so bad that President Vladimir Putin publicly scolded space agency officials on a visit to the new Vostochny site after the first rocket launch was delayed moments before blast-off. Igor Komarov, the fourth leader in six years appointed to fix Roscosmos, also said plainly that the agency “will need profound reforms.”
Even projects that Roscosmos has prioritized for decades have been mired in problems. For many years, the Russian government has invested in building its own version of GPS, called GLONASS. But after the Soviet collapse, financial problems delayed the program, which required a constellation of 24 satellites circling the Earth. Around 2011, when it finally got the full set operational, the technology had become so obsolete that it had to be replaced by newer models. Trade sanctions, slapped on the state for annexing Crimea, delayed the delivery of electronic components it needed for those too—again keeping the future of the program uncertain.
On top of the onslaught of failures, the sanctions and the precipitous plunge in oil and gas prices have hobbled the Russian economy. In response, the government slashed space spending for the next 10-year cycle by more than half, from $64 billion to $21 billion. As a point of comparison, NASA is expected to spend about $18.8 billion in 2017 alone. The European Space Agency; Japan; and, of course, China spend much more on space annually than the Russians, while the Indians are catching up.
Jim Oberg, one of the most respected analysts who follows the Russian space program, summarized all this succinctly, writing, “The sheer number of technical, operational and financial woes bedeviling Russia’s once-vaunted space program is worrisome.”
But these hard times don’t mean that Roscosmos is out of the game. For one, NASA recently signed an agreement to launch American astronauts to ISS on Russia’s Soyuz until at least 2019. And even if other nations stop using Russia to launch their astronauts and satellites, some use Russian technology in their own rides. For example, the U.S.-based United Launch Alliance still relies on Russia’s top-of-the-line RD-180 engines to power its own rockets. It’s an odd arrangement that has come under criticism by some U.S. politicians and from ULA competitors. (SpaceX, for one, got into an aggressive lobbying campaign to get the Russian engines banned from U.S. rockets.) But, thanks to Congress, American companies have permission to use the high-performance and inexpensive Russian engines until at least 2022.
If you telescope out to the next 10 years, Russia has some bold projects to watch. For one, Roscosmos partnered with the European Space Agency on the ambitious ExoMars project, which aims to use multiple orbital and surface probes to search for evidence of life on the red planet. The program will provide a highly sophisticated surface platform that will begin work on the Martian surface in 2020.
Russia will also debut a huge new manned spacecraft, dubbed Federation (Federatsiya), in 2023 with the idea that it will be ready to take cosmonauts into lunar orbit by about 2025. This would be qualitatively different than simpler circumlunar slingshot mission planned by SpaceX for the next couple of years. And, last but not least, we’ll probably see a new, permanently manned Russian Orbital Station by 2024—an independent split-off of the soon-to-be-retired ISS.
This future, of course, depends a lot on the recovery of the Russian economy and whether the government can weed out corruption in the space program’s ranks. But there’s reason to think the program will emerge from the slump. As space journalist Anatoly Zak writes, the recent string of issues is small compared with the bigger story of a program that came back from near extinction just a decade ago. The Russians are still trying. Their rocket failures have come, in part, from the sheer number of launches, and they appear to be fixing the structural problems of the program. Their new generation of satellites now make a formidable fleet of eyes and ears in the sky. And their more exploratory projects could pave the way for more pioneering missions. Each of these pieces, Zak writes, “testifies to the growing engineering potential of the Russian space industry.”
As other recent global events have reminded us, it can be foolhardy to completely dismiss Russians to history. In the next 10 years, the country that pioneered space exploration and accomplished some of its greatest feats may surprise us once again.
This article is part of the new space race installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.