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Two news stories today demonstrate without question that Russia’s newly reorganized aerospace industry and its project to build a new spaceport are not merely the efforts of mid-level bureaucrats in that aerospace industry.
No, these efforts have been instituted and are being pushed at the very top of the Russian government, by Vladmir Putin himself. It appears that he has decided, or has always believed, that Russia deserves a strong and vibrant space program, run from Moscow, and is doing everything he can to make it happen, as part of his personal vision for Russia.
The first story described a visit on Tuesday that Putin made to Russia’s new space port, Vostochny, in the far eastern end of Russia. While there he noted that construction is several months behind schedule and that this slack must be made up. He then endorsed the proposal put to him by space agency officials that the number of people working on construction should be doubled.
The second story described Putin’s endorsement of the construction of a new Russian heavy lift rocket, capable of putting 150 tons into orbit. Such a rocket would be comparable in power to the largest version of the U.S.’s SLS rocket, not due to be launched, if ever, until the 2020s.
“Today we heard the first concrete words about commencing work on the project. Previously, there was discussion and expert roundtables, but today President Putin gave the preliminary go-ahead for the new rocket,” declared Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who curates the country’s space industry, after touring the Vostochny cosmodrome in the east of the country with the Russian leader.
The news comes on the back of a successful test launch of the long-gestating Angara rocket earlier this summer. The rocket, which is capable of delivering up to 35 tons of cargo into the Low Earth Orbit in its most powerful modification, is the first launch vehicle developed entirely after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Rogozin said that work on the new super-heavy rocket would begin as soon as Angara is in regular use.
Based on this information, construction of this new rocket will begin around 2016 at the earliest, and it will not become operational until sometime late in the 2020s, at the earliest.
All told, Putin has committed significant funds and effort to Russia’s entire space industry. For Vostochny he pledged more than a billion dollars to get the spaceport operational. He also put his Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin in direct control of the project, taking it from Oleg Ostapenko, head of the Russia’s space agency Roscosmos. This change made it very clear that Putin himself wants this project finished on time and will be watching what happens very very closely.
Meanwhile, the reorganization and consolidation of Russia’s aerospace industry into one giant government-run organization dubbed the United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC), approved by Putin himself in December 2013, has picked up steam with the government’s take over of Russia’s biggest space company, Energia.
As with Vostochny, this consolidation was undertaken with the express involvement of Putin himself, and has even included the prosecution of one high level Energia official to make sure everyone else toes the line.
Finally, in the past few months stories have been coming out of Russia of a government effort to outline a new long range detailed program for space exploration, including projects for both lunar and planetary exploration.
All of these efforts point to a direct interest and commitment by Vladimir Putin to make his country a leader in space exploration once again. In fact, Putin’s level of interest and participation in space appears greater than any Russian leader since Khrushchev in the 1960s. And when that happened, Russia did some very exciting things in space and forced the U.S. government to respond with its own space program.
Unlike the 1960s, however, this time the U.S. response is likely to come not from the government but from the efforts of a number of private companies. The nature of this competition, big government vs private enterprise, should be quite fascinating to watch unfold.
I bet my money on private enterprise. Russia might get a quick jump start from the personal interest of its new czar Putin, but freedom and the individual dreams of many different people will always win in the end.