60 years after Gagarin, Russia lags behind in the space race

60 years after Gagarin, Russia lags behind in the space race

A station on the moon! A mission to Venus! A Next Generation Spaceship!

Sixty years after the Soviet Union made history by launching Yuri Gagarin into space on April 12, 1961, Russia still has great extraterrestrial ambitions, but its ability to realize them is more realistic.

Project after project has been announced and then delayed, as large designs fall victim to funding problems or bureaucratic inertia. Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s attention is focused on military enterprises rather than space exploration.

One such example is the project to replace Russia’s old Soyuz capsule, a workhorse that has been transporting astronauts into space since the 1960s and continues to be used for trips to the International Space Station.

First announced in 2009, the project to replace the Soyuz has been repeatedly delayed. Even the name of the proposed capsule has been changed several times, from “Federation” to “Oryol” (Eagle) and then a smaller proposed version called “Orlyonok”.

RKK Energia, the company that builds the Soyuz, was awarded a development contract for the project.

Standing in a museum at the Energia offices celebrating Soviet space achievements, the director of the company’s flight center, Alexander Kaleri, boasts that the new capsule will be “larger, with more powerful engines and more comfortable than the Soyuz “.

But Kaleri, a veteran cosmonaut who flew several missions into space and spent months on the ISS and Mir space stations, admits the project is a long way from taking off.

“The goal is to conduct a first pilotless test flight by 2023. For now, we are starting to test models for the capsule, it is quite a long process.”

– Projects stalled –

Russian space expert Vitaly Yegorov says the long development is not surprising given “technical difficulties, Western sanctions against the Russian space industry and lack of funding” for the space program.

With the Soyuz still flying, there is also no “acute need” for a replacement, he says.

Other projects have also stalled, including next-generation Angara-A5 rockets intended to carry Russian space capsules, which have been in development since the 1990s but have been launched only twice in test mode, in 2014 and 2020.

The Nauka laboratory module destined for the ISS, which began assembly in the 1990s, has also suffered a series of failures that have prevented it from entering orbit.

Despite these setbacks, Dmitry Rogozin, a nationalist politician and former diplomat now in charge of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, continues to make bombastic claims about future projects.

It has announced companies to bring samples of Venus and a rocket capable of making 100 trips to and from space and vice versa.

After Russia pulled out of the US-led international Lunar Gateway project, a lunar-orbiting space station whose first modules will launch in 2024, Moscow and Beijing announced plans in March for a rival space station, but without a schedule or budget.

A former Roscosmos official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it is clear that Rogozin’s projects are a cake in the sky.

The Roscosmos chief promises President Vladimir Putin “that they will go to the Moon, Mars or Venus,” the official said. “But their promises extend into the 2030s, when none of them will be in power.”

Russian space expert Vadim Lukashevich said the problem for Roscosmos is that when it comes to science projects, Putin’s mind is not on space exploration.

“The priority for the Kremlin is military projects, especially missile development,” he said.

– ‘Putin talks about missiles’ –

Putin frequently touts Russia’s hypersonic weapons, which he claims can hit an enemy like a “meteorite.”

“You see with what inspiration Putin talks about new weapons and missiles,” says Lukashevich.

So while Russian defense spending has grown significantly over the past two decades, Roscosmos has seen its budget drop year after year.

Last year, Rogozin announced that the total space industry budget for 2016-2025 of 1.4 trillion rubles ($ 18.4 billion, 15.6 billion euros) was being reduced by 10 percent during the last five years.

And as Russia’s space industry stagnates, its competitors, now including the private sector, are advancing.

Russia lost its monopoly on ISS launches last year when reusable rockets from Space X, a company owned by American billionaire Elon Musk, brought NASA astronauts to the station.

Roscosmos is wary of partnerships with private companies, Yegorov says, fearing that this could divert the “budget and state space contracts.”

Meanwhile, the industry is rife with corruption, including multiple scandals over the construction of the new Vostochny launch pad in the Far East.

“There are hardly any space companies left whose officials have not been replaced or arrested,” laments the former Roscosmos staff member.

“Today, the industry is run by newcomers with no training in space technologies.”

Milestones in space exploration
Paris (AFP) April 7, 2021 – From Yuri Gagarin to the first man on the Moon and the robot that landed on a comet, we look at 10 key dates in space exploration.

1957: Sputnik

Moscow launches the first satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957, marking the beginning of the Cold War struggle for the cosmos.

The beach ball-sized aluminum sphere takes 98 minutes to orbit Earth and sends the first message from space, simple “beep-beep-beep” radio signals.

A month later, Sputnik 2 brings the first living being to fully orbit the Earth, a small stray dog ​​named Laika. She dies within hours.

– 1961: Gagarin, first man –

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, completing a single 108-minute orbit aboard Vostok-1.

Twenty-three days later, Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space when he takes a 15-minute journey.

On June 16, 1963, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.

It takes a full 40 years for the old Cold War rivals to join a third country in space, when China sends Yang Liwei aboard the Shenzhou 5 ground orbiter.

– 1969: Walking on the Moon –

American astronaut Neil Armstrong is the first man to set foot on the Moon on July 21, 1969, and Buzz Aldrin joins him about 20 minutes later.

Between 1969 and 1972, 10 astronauts, all Americans, walked on the Moon as part of NASA’s Apollo program.

– 1971: space station –

The Soviet Union launches the first orbiting space station, Salyut 1, on April 19, 1971.

It is followed by another Russian space station, Mir. It returns to Earth in 2001 after 15 years in orbit.

Construction of the still operational International Space Station (ISS) begins in 1998. The largest man-made structure in space, it orbits the Earth 16 times a day.

– 1976: Mars –

The American Viking 1 spacecraft becomes the first to successfully land on Mars on July 20, 1976 and sends images of the Red Planet.

The Opportunity robot explored Mars between 2004 and 2018, with NASA’s Curiosity Rover still active there.

About 40 missions are sent to Mars, more than half of which fail.

– 1981: Space Shuttle –

The American space shuttle Columbia, the first reusable manned spacecraft, makes its maiden voyage on April 12, 1981.

It is followed by Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor, serving the ISS until the end of the shuttle program in 2011.

Since then, the United States has depended on Russia to transport its astronauts to the ISS.

Two American shuttles were destroyed in flight, with the loss of 14 astronauts: Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

– 1990: Hubble –

Hubble is the first space telescope to be put into orbit on April 25, 1990, 547 kilometers (340 miles) above Earth.

It revolutionizes astronomy, allowing scientists to observe planets and distant stars and galaxies without hindrance.

– 2001: Tourism –

On April 28, 2001, 60-year-old Italian-American billionaire Dennis Tito became the world’s first space tourist. It pays Russia $ 20 million to stay on the ISS for eight days.

In all, seven space tourists have taken Russian flights to the ISS.

The American company SpaceX plans to launch its first space tourism mission in late 2021.

2008: SpaceX

SpaceX becomes the first private company to successfully launch a rocket into Earth’s orbit in September 2008.

His cargo ship Dragon becomes the first commercial spacecraft to visit the ISS in May 2012, on a mission for NASA.

Since then, SpaceX has conquered the satellite launch market with its Falcon 9.

After the flights in 2020, SpaceX has planned two more manned launches for NASA to the ISS in 2021, including one taking off from Florida on April 22 with French, American and Japanese astronauts.

– 2014: comet landing –

The European Space Agency places a small robot, Philae, on a comet more than 500 million kilometers from Earth on November 12, 2014. The first comet lander is part of a mission that aims to explore the origins Of the solar system.

The furthest man-made object from Earth is the US unmanned Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977 and still traveling.

In August 2012 it reached interstellar space, some 13 billion miles from Earth.

– 2021: Moon to Mars –

NASA views the Moon as a pit stop for missions to Mars. His goal is to send the first woman to the Moon by 2024.

Perseverance became the fifth rover to put wheels on Mars on February 18, laying the groundwork for NASA’s first attempt at controlled, motorized flight on another planet.

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