Russia’s Quest to Build a Space Empire—or Go Broke Trying
IT’S NOT UNUSUAL for space agencies to wax lyrical about how their work exploring all that lies beyond Earth’s atmosphere is for the shared benefit of humankind. It’s probably expected. So when, at a panel during the 33rd annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, the head of the Russian space agency says things like “How should we collaborate for the benefit of all of us to get the best result?” and “We need to find the way how can we do it together,” nobody seems to question his motives.
Which maybe they should have, since that country’s space agency, Roscosmos, hasn’t sent significant representation to the symposium in over 20 years. During this panel, which included 14 other space-agency leaders, Roscosmos general director—a dark, handsome man named Igor Komarov—puts special emphasis his country’s desire to collaborate with the fledgling space programs of emerging nations, like Vietnam and Venezuela. Komarov sticks to feel-good terms like “cooperate” and “collaborate” when he talks about international partnerships—which he and other Roscosmos reps do throughout the symposium. But his agency’s motivation seems more about another C-word: customers. Last year, the Russian government restructured Roscosmos as a state-run corporation, and the cash-strapped organization is using these altruistic overtures to cultivate nascent space programs into new customers dependent on Russia’s 60 years of orbital expertise.
Russia is, of course, not the only space organization looking to profit in the name of higher ideals—SpaceX can only reach Mars and save civilization if it launches a lot of satellites. And mutually beneficial partnerships have been key to space exploration since the fall of communism gave way to the idea that space exists beyond the borders and nationalism of Earth. But such idealism overlooks the endeavor’s roots in the fertile soil of nationalist competition, the still-present remnants of that country-centricity, and something else: money.
Right now, Roscosmos isn’t just chasing ideals: It’s struggling to survive. “Their program is in a very fragile condition, despite what Komarov, et al., were saying in Colorado,” says John Logsdon, founder and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. He lists some Russian issues: recent budget cuts; problems with the Proton rocket; delays with their next-generation Angara rocket. “It’s a program that’s in trouble,” Logsdon says.
Come fly with us
Space transcends borders in very pragmatic ways, in addition to the get-along ones. Roscosmos already partners with big space players like the US, Canada, and Europe, and with nascent programs like those in Vietnam and India. It is working with the European Space Agency on the ExoMars—an orbiter (which is fine), a lander (which is not), and a future rover (which is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). NASA charters Russian Soyuz rockets to hurl astronauts, science experiments, and plenty of other US space stuff into orbit. And cosmonauts and astronauts have floated side-by-side in the International Space Station for so long that they speak a hybrid language called Runglish.
Such collaborations arise partly from practicality. If you’ve listened to anyone knowledgeable talk about actually doing that, you’ve heard the tired phrase “space is hard.” Also expensive. So when it comes to the hardest of that already hard stuff, sharing the technical and financial burdens is the only way to make it happen. “It’s always natural for any country to say, ‘I want my own indigenous capability on launch and satellite,’” says Steve Isakowitz, president of the Aerospace Corporation. “The reality always hits that we all don’t print money, and so we don’t have infinite resources.”
And so countries work together. It’s at once the best way to solve problems that affect multiple nations, like what to do about space debris, and the best way to spend less and still accomplish the same goal. But, spending less isn’t the only path to financial success. Making more also helps a lot.
Soyuz want to make a deal?
What better place to announce that you’d like to collaborate with “emerging space nations”—future customers—than at a gathering where 30+ countries are there to hear it? These countries will need launches, hardware, and expertise—and perhaps, just perhaps, they also have natural or human resources that Russia does not.
At a Roscosmos-only press conference convened later in the symposium, Komarov explains what Roscosmos is—which is to say, not at all like NASA. It is a “state corporation:” An umbrella company owned by the government. That’s new. The “Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities” took charge of the country’s space program and regulations in January 2016. And this Roscosmos isn’t just in charge of launching rockets and doing science. Its mission statement (printed right there on its website) puts it in the business of “placing orders for the development, manufacture and supply of space equipment and space infrastructure objects,” “international space cooperation,” and “setting the stage for the future use of results of space activities in the social and economic development of Russia.”
Roscosmos has a near monopoly on the Russian space industry. It encompasses more than 60 companies and 250,000 people. And in the spirit of collaboration, it is using those resources to do new things, like develop technology, Earth observation capacity, and communications systems for Vietnam, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, and Chile. Oh, and they are helping those countries develop their own experts—and space policies. In other words, Russia—in “helping”—is also shaping not just how the international space industry shapes up but also how it functions politically.
There’s no reason Roscosmos has to help. So what’s their angle? When asked directly whether Roscosmos why it is putting so much effort on collaboration, Sergey Savelyev, who’s in charge of the agency’s international operations, comes clean. “These are prospective clients,” he says to me. Then, he chuckles.