They were the first to place a man-made satellite into Earth orbit. The first to launch a man…and, later, a woman…into orbit and bring them home safely. The first to conduct a spacewalk. The first to build a space station. The list goes on.
Indeed, the Russian — née, Soviet — space program has been both a trailblazer, and a stalwart workhorse, in spaceflight. While they may lack a lot of the flair and flash of their American counterparts, they were every bit as impressive in their achievements.
However, the Bear* may be past its prime and could very well be in a significant decline.
Their budget is low, and while they may have been able to gouge…I mean, sell…NASA some Soyuz seats at an ever-increasing rate in order to bolster their meager funding, those days will be coming to an end with the Americans switching to their Commercial Crew providers, depriving Roscosmos of millions needed of dollars.
What impact has this had on operations? Roscosmos recently confirmed that they’re reducing their complement of cosmonauts on the International Space Station (ISS) from three to two, something which had been projected earlier this year. This is in an effort to save money, ostensibly so Russia can fund its modernized crew capsule with the development of their Federation spacecraft.
But the Russians can’t seem to string together a calendar year without a mission failure. According to Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc, Russia hasn’t had a full year without a failure since 2009-2010. The failure of the Soyuz-U carrying Progress MS-04 on December 1, 2016, kept that dubious streak alive.
To be sure, and to use a phrase I absolutely despise, space is hard. And sure, failure inevitably comes, in some guise or another, to all those who attempt this journey into the cosmos.
Nevertheless, one can’t help but get the feeling that Russia’s best days of spaceflight may be behind them…and likely receding at an ever-accelerating rate.
With the anticipated rise of multiple crew-capable launch providers in the United States, in addition to NASA’s own capabilities with Orion, the need for Russia to launch humans to space — beyond the country’s own cosmonauts — will rapidly wither.
The prognosis for Mother Russia’s satellite launching industry may be as, if not more, bleak. SpaceX aims to be a low-cost option with their Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles. United Launch Alliance, though more expensive, is damn-near flawless with their success rate over the past ten years. And those are just two of the options in the United States.
Arianespace in Europe has been a top-tier launch provider for many years, and the rise of both India and China as low-cost alternatives further dilutes the need to engage Russia to get hardware to space.
I certainly hope my prognostication is wrong and that Roscosmos rights their ship and rejoins the United States as a premier spaceflight power. The more capability we have, as a species, to explore space, the better.
But I don’t think I’m wrong.
*I will always think of Russia as “the Bear” – I’m a child of the Cold War.