Russia’s space program was already having a bad year.
A suspicious hole discovered on a Russian vessel docked at the International Space Station (ISS) in August prompted speculation about a manufacturing defect or deliberate sabotage. That later gave way to veiled suggestions of politically motivated space skullduggery.
Ten months earlier, a Russian rocket malfunctioned after launching from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, destroying a $50 million weather satellite and 18 other satellites. Experts concluded that a software programmer forgot to change the launch coordinates.
Now, the October 11 malfunction and emergency landing of a rocket carrying a Russian and an American inside a Soyuz capsule has shone an even harsher light on the current reality of manned space flight.
There is currently no alternative to using Russian launch vehicles to get astronauts to the ISS, and — for now — even that option is on hold. On October 12, Russia’s space agency suspended all launches of the Soyuz-type rocket used in the aborted launch. In a Twitter post, Roskosmos head Dmitry Rogozin said that the two-man crew would “definitely have their flight,” and said plans were being made to send them to the ISS in the spring.
In 2011, the United States grounded the only real alternative — the Space Shuttle fleet — giving Russia a monopoly on getting people to and from the space station. Astronauts from the European Space Agency, Japan, and other countries have flown on the Soyuz missions.
The technology used in the Soyuz, and many of the Russian rockets as well, is considered old, but exceedingly reliable. First developed by the Soviets in the mid-1960s, the technology has powered more than 1,700 manned and unmanned launches, making it the most-used launch vehicle in the world by far.
The last major failure occurred in 1983, when a Soyuz rocket exploded on its launch pad.
“It has a good reliability record, but like any system, you have to pay attention to details, and you can’t let any problem arise because there are so many components that go into making a working rocket,” said George Abbey, who directed NASA’s Johnson Space Center between 1996 and 2001.
With many in Congress wary about the high costs of manned space exploration, NASA has shifted priorities, and budgets, toward other programs.
Filling A Gap
In the meantime, the absence of a government-run manned space program, plus other technological advances, has helped spur a rush by private U.S. companies to develop their own launch technologies.
SpaceX, the company owned by entrepreneur Elon Musk, and veteran aerospace giant Boeing were awarded billion-dollar contracts in 2014 to develop manned space vehicles. Both are scheduled to contact their first manned test flights next year. SpaceX has already sent unmanned resupply capsules to the space station, using its own rocket technology.
“For the first time since 2011, we are on the brink of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in August at a ceremony announcing the two sets of crews who will be manning the tests.
Still, even with the push for private space travel, there have been warnings about more delays. The Government Accountability Office — Congress’s official auditing agency — said in a July report that incomplete safety measures and accountability problems could push back the commercial program further.
Two years earlier, in 2016, the NASA’s own inspector-general explicitly criticized the agency, saying the delays had resulted in marked increases in the amount of money the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, was being paid for ferrying U.S. astronauts to the orbiting station. Currently, it costs NASA around $80 million per ride.
China has successfully put its astronauts into orbit, but its space program is still in relative infancy.
Russia has served as a singular source for rocket and space technology in another area as well — U.S. commercial and military satellite launches — something that has bothered some defense officials, and members of Congress, for years.
The RD-180 engine, built by state-controlled NPO Energomash, has been used for years on rockets built by two private companies: United Launch Alliance and Orbital ATK.
Two other private companies are both developing new engines in roughly the same class as the RD-180: Blue Origin, started by the billionaire owner of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, and Aerojet Rocketdyne. Blue Origin is scheduled to unveil its engine in 2019, but regular launches of U.S. satellites are still years away.
European company Arianespace is also building out its commercial launch portfolio for satellites.
Abbey said he doubted the timeline for when commercial space flights would be ready to begin shuttling people to the space station, given all the testing and certification by U.S. authorities they face. “I would not assume that those two vehicles are going to be available anytime soon,” he said.
Because the Soyuz is the only option right now for manned travel, Roskosmos is expected to give the Soyuz the green light to resume operations, if only so that the space station isn’t abandoned. The head of Roskosmos’s manned-flight program has said the space agency is still planning to send a crew to the space station in December, pending the results of the investigation into the October 11 launch mishap.
NASA officials said the three-member crew currently on board could remain there until January. And if they did then return to Earth — on one of the Russian capsules now docked at the station — the station itself could be operated remotely by ground controllers.
Even when Soyuz does resume operations, there’s another looming deadline: NASA’s current contract with its Russian counterpart, Roskosmos, is set to expire in November 2019. Amid the still unresolved controversy over the mysterious hole in the space station, Roskosmos chief Rogozin has suggested that Moscow may not renew it.
Regardless, from Russia’s perspective, the looming loss of revenue from NASA contracts is a potential disaster, says Pavel Luzin, a researcher of Russian space policy. “Russia wants to continue a space partnership like it has been with the International Space Station,” he says. “The ISS works like a huge bureaucratic institute, and Russia can be equal to the United States in this bureaucracy.”
Luzin argues that Roskosmos continues to function like a Soviet-era bureaucracy, and even much of the Russian civilian aerospace industry is unable to innovate and respond quickly to changes in technology.
In addition to the Soyuz, there have also been problems with the Proton rocket, prompting the authorities to move to phase it out more quickly.
And for Kremlin planners, space science is one of the only few remaining areas — other than nuclear arms and military hardware — where Russia is seen as being a peer to the United States.
“That makes Russia a great power,” Luzin says.