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Are We Watching the End of Russia’s Space Ambitions?

It was a tale of two space programs. On Sunday, Russia’s Luna-25 lander malfunctioned as it prepared to touch down on the moon’s south pole the following day—eventually crashing into the lunar surface. If it had landed, it would have been the country’s first return to the moon since 1976, when it was still branded as the Soviet Union. Instead, it ended up being another black eye for a beleaguered space program.

Then, a few days later, India’s Chandrayaan-3 lander successfully touched down on the moon’s south pole—making them the fourth country to land on the lunar surface after the Soviet Union, the U.S., and China. There, researchers hope to deploy a rover to search for and study ice and soil in the region—which many suspect holds valuable and vital resources for future lunar missions.

While it was a resoundingly successful mission, the Chandrayaan-3 lander underscored the relatively flagging state of Russia’s civilian space agency, Roscosmos. It’s seen its stature on the world stage take a beating in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, and had already been suffering from a string of embarrassing news ranging from the bloviating smack talk of its former chief Dmitry Rogozin to the multiple life threatening incidents it caused to astronauts on the International Space Station. The failure of Luna-25 calls into question the long term ambitions of Roscosmos—and whether or not we’re witnessing the death rattle of Russia’s space ambitions.

“The problems with Roscosmos existed certainly prior to the invasion of Ukraine,” John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told The Daily Beast. The issues that have plagued Russia’s space program, he said, mirror the very issues that have mired the country for decades including a downright Kafkaesque bureaucracy and financial malfeasance.

“They have not had adequate funding or adequate priority—but they have had a lot of corruption,” Logsdon explained.

Indeed, lack of funding has significantly crippled the once-proud space program. In 2015, the Russian government slashed spending on Roscosmos by more than a third due to a financial crisis caused by western economic sanctions in response to its 2014 invasion of Ukraine. This greatly delayed the agency’s plans to create its own space station by 2023—which has clearly not happened and hasn’t gained much development since its announcement.

In 2018, Roscosmos faced budget cuts yet again to the tune of roughly $2.4 billion. The cuts caused further delays to its spacefaring ambitions along with the construction of its spaceports. This is despite Russian president Vladimir Putin saying that same year: “It is necessary to drastically improve the quality and reliability of space and launch vehicles […] to preserve Russia’s increasingly threatened leadership in space.”

More recently, in 2021, Putin announced yet another cut in funding for the following three years to Roscosmos due to a financial crisis caused by western economic sanctions in response to its invasion of Ukraine (stop us if you’ve heard this one before). Also in the backdrop of all this was the space agency’s announcement that it had lost an eye-watering $262.4 million in revenue in 2020 due to a variety of issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite this, Putin still expressed his wishes that Roscosmos return the country’s space ambitions to its former dominance—expressing concern that it would be rapidly outstripped by western competition from the likes of SpaceX. However, much of this can likely be attributed to Putin’s wish that the country dominate space for geopolitical purposes rather than scientific ones.

Logsdon explained that this can be seen through Moscow’s focus on the Russian Space Forces, their answer to the U.S. Space Force. Not only has this branch received the majority of the focus when it comes to Russia’s space ambitions, but it also controls the necessary resources for space exploration.

“The Russian equivalent of the Space Force in the military has gotten priority funding over the last 10 years or so,” he said. “They’ve developed a wide range of military capabilities that are viewed by the U.S. as rather threatening.”

Logsdon added: “The military controls all the launch vehicles.” This means that Roscosmos lacks even more independence and autonomy to conduct missions when compared to the likes of NASA.

There’s also the rampant corruption that has occurred throughout Roscosmos—exacerbated by its former head Rogozin. While he has since left the role following the Ukraine invasion, many space experts widely blame Rogozin for the current state and failures of the agency.

Under his wing, Roscosmos had a series of failed and embarrassing launches and widespread corruption. This included embezzled funds meant for the construction of the Vostochny cosmodrome in eastern Russia—the same space port from which the ill-fated Luna-25 was launched. This resulted in prison terms for four former construction company executives in 2021.

That brings us to today, where Roscosmos’ latest space-faring plan came crashing down to earth—or rather, the lunar surface. This failure represents a massive setback for the agency’s hopes to establish a foothold on the moon, which has become something of a shining prize for spacefaring nations all over the world.

This is due to the fact that the moon—and, in particular, its south pole—is expected to be abundant with resources and materials that future lunar colonies can rely on like water and minerals. It’s why the likes of China and India have sent rovers to the lunar surface recently. It’s also why the U.S. and NASA have poured billions of dollars into the Artemis program to send American astronauts back to the moon and establish a permanent base quite soon.

“There’s pretty firm speculation that there are resources in the craters of the [lunar] south pole that have technical and economic values in addition to scientific interest,” Logsdon said. “There is a ‘race’ to be the first to the south pole region.”

However, with Roscosmos now performing with seemingly both hands tied behind its back, it’s now well-behind the competition when it comes to space dominance despite what Putin might want to project otherwise. The Russian space industry as a whole is not nearly as advanced or well-funded as the west, which boasts the names of heavy hitters in the private space sector like SpaceX and Blue Origin. This has resulted in a lack of the technology necessary to sustain a successful space program.

Logsdon cautioned that this doesn’t mean that the obituary for Roscosmos should be written off quite yet. “It depends on how the Russian leadership reacts to this failure,” he said. “They could say—as the U.S. has after shuttle failures, or the Apollo 1 fire, or some of our Mars failures—that it’s not acceptable and we gotta get back to where we want to be. Or they could say, ‘Let’s not throw good money after bad,’ and de-emphasize the civilian program.”

For now, though, things look bleak for Roscosmos. The storied Russian space program once projected near-total dominance when it came to space. It produced heroes like Yuri Gagarin, and groundbreaking events like the first satellite into orbit and interplanetary probes to Venus and Mars.

Now, it might just be a shadow of its former self or, maybe, something even a little less. It’s the victim of its own corruption, incompetence, and greed—despite its sky-high ambition.


August 2023