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OPINION: The Bear’s space program isn’t what it used to be…and it’s only going to get worse

russianspacepropaganda1They 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.

Commercial Crew: It was never about saving money

"Going my way?" NASA's astronauts have had to hitch a ride with the Russians since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011. Credit: William Neff/The Plain Dealer

“Going my way?” NASA’s astronauts have been forced to hitch a ride with the Russians since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011. Credit: William Neff/The Plain Dealer

The Bear knows how to play Monopoly

The last time NASA had to pony up for astronauts to hitch a ride to the International Space Station (ISS) with the Russians on their venerable Soyuz spacecraft, they paid — on average — nearly $82 million per seat, for a total of six seats. That’s $490 million to get six astronauts to the ISS.

Think about that for a moment: almost half a billion dollars to ferry six people to the ISS. It would appear that our formerly communist rivals learned that capitalism can sometimes be a very profitable thing – Soyuz seats have increased 384 percent in 10 years. Having no competition allows Russia to increase prices with relative impunity.

To be fair, that amount does cover more than just taxi service to the orbiting outpost — launch services and flight training are also included in that “low, low” price. However, that’s still a heck of a lot of money to be sending to a government that may be actively operating against American institutions.

Oh, and there are those little incidents in Syria and Crimea, too. It would seem as if it’s not the best idea to rely upon “The Bear” for any longer than is necessary.

Thankfully, since 2010, NASA has been working with private companies as part of their Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, with the goal of accelerating development of commercial space capabilities and returning human launches to US soil. Read More →

Russia floats proposal to reduce their ISS staff

The International Space Station as seen in this photo from crew on the departing Atlantis on STS-132. Credit: NASA

The International Space Station as seen in this photo from crew on the departing Atlantis on STS-132. Credit: NASA

Russia has notified its space station partners of a proposal to reduce its contingent of cosmonauts on the International Space Station (ISS) from three to two.

Though Russia has committed to maintaining the orbiting laboratory through 2024, their national space agency, Roscosmos, has been suffering from leaner budgets as of late, though it’s unclear if the proposal to cut their on-station crew is budget-related or a shift in priorities. However, coupled with the reduction in the number of ISS resupply missions needed from the Russians, along with the assumed resumption of crewed launches from the United States in the near future negating the need for Russia to ferry US and international astronauts – both of which are significant sources of income – it’s not a stretch to see a fiscal strain being the impetus behind this proposal.

NASA is aware of the proposal, as are the other ISS partners, and will weigh it as it relates to crew safety and other operational considerations. NASA’s Kenneth Todd – International Space Station Operations Integration Manager – confirms that Russia is considering the staff draw-down, and even though it is merely a proposal at this point, the international group will work to ascertain if there’s anything they can do to assist their Russian counterparts work through their current difficulties.