The Russians are Coming


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To judge the future by recent events, one might think that by 2010 U.S. tourists will be flying to orbital U.S. hotels on U.S. spacecraft, while at the same time the Bush administration initiative to return humans to the moon will be charging forward at warp speed toward a 2015 return.

Think again. The future of space in the next decade could just as easily be dominated by a resurgent Russian space industry, innovative and efficient, with the ability to provide quality service to its customers at a low cost.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian space program was the first business to face reality and shift gears, quickly adopting capitalistic and market-oriented techniques for making a profit.

Almost immediately, advertisements plastered the walls of mission control in Moscow as well as the sides of Russian rockets. Russian cosmonauts taped commercials in orbit, and the space program sold tickets to Mir to television stations, entertainment consortiums and foreign governments — including the United States. That effort eventually produced paid flights to the International Space Station by well-heeled tourists such as Dennis Tito.

Because of an extremely favorable exchange rate leftover from their failed communist economy, Russian labor costs were significantly lower than those in the West, allowing them to charge significantly less than anyone else. Moreover, rocketry was one of the few Russian industries with a good reputation for high quality standards.

Russia’s space program soon became by far the country’s most successful export product. By 2000, it had grabbed a significant share of the private commercial launch market with its Proton, Dnepr, Zenit and Soyuz rockets, and by last year it was so successful its rockets launched more than 45 percent of all spacecraft, more than any other nation and 50 percent more than the U.S. market share.

The future looks even brighter. Last week, Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, signed a long-term agreement with the European Space Agency to allow Russia to establish Soyuz rocket-launch facilities at ESA’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

Because Kourou is closer to the equator than either Baikonur or Plesetsk — the two launch pads from which the Soyuz rocket family is presently fitted to fly — it will allow Soyuz nearly to double the payload it can lift to geosynchronous orbit, from 1.7 tons to 3 tons.

At the same time, the Russians continue to hold the whip hand in their negotiations with NASA over shuttling crews and providing lifeboat services to the space station.

The next agreement between the two nations likely will give the Russians even more opportunities to sell tourist tickets each time they send a Soyuz to the ISS, a flexibility that will also “increase launch orders for our space industry,” noted Roskosmos chief Anatolii Perminov at a news conference.

With such encouraging business prospects, it is not surprising the company that builds the Soyuz rocket family boosted its planned production for 2005 by 50 percent — from 10 rockets to 15. Moreover, Roskosmos already has announced that, in the first three months of 2005 alone, seven Russian launches will put eight satellites in orbit, a launch rate far exceeding anyone else’s.

Even as they are solidifying their domination in the launch industry for both manned and unmanned missions, the Russian government seems firmly committed to complete the Russian half of the space station by 2011, with plans to launch a new laboratory module by 2007, a power and science platform by 2009 and a second laboratory module by 2011.

The Russians also appear to be moving forward aggressively with their next-generation manned spacecraft.

Roskosmos first announced it was beginning work on this new vehicle, dubbed Clipper, shortly after President George W. Bush unveiled his space initiative on Jan. 14, 2004. In the year that followed — while NASA could barely write the first draft of its Request for Proposals describing what it required for its shuttle replacement — RSC Energia, the Russian space company, completed a preliminary design as well as a full-scale model, unveiling it last Dec. 1.

Not only is this six-seat manned spacecraft intended to be reusable, but one design option also will have it land on a runway like the space shuttle. Furthermore, Energia officials said if funded they could have it built and flying by 2010.

Topping all this, a number of Russian government and industry officials have expressed guarded optimism their country will mount its own effort to send humans to Mars, sometime around 2015. Nor has this overview m entioned pending launches in 2005 on Russian rockets of cutting-edge solar-sail and space-mirror technologies.

Obviously, it would be a mistake to assume the Russians have no problems at all. For example, Clipper’s funding situation remains unclear. Though RSC Energia officials said they could complete a fleet of four Clippers by 2010, the Russian government seems more inclined to stretch out its development until 2015.

Moreover, unlike George Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no commitment to any large space effort, including sending Russians to Mars.

Nonetheless, the Russian space industry’s future appears rosy.

What has been the U.S. reaction to all this? Consider the following anecdote: Soon after Bush announced his space exploration vision last year, NASA officials fanned out across the country, giving talks to describe the technological challenges presented by this effort.

At the annual Goddard Symposi um, held by the American Astronautical Society in late March 2004 in Beltsville, Md., one NASA engineer outlined the need to design closed environmental recycling systems for any spaceship traveling to Mars.

To illustrate what was already known, he described the systems used on NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules, as well as on the shuttle, Skylab, and the U.S. half of the ISS.

Nowhere in his presentation, however, was there any mention of a Russian system, even though since 1971 the Russians have built seven successful space stations prior to the ISS with a remarkable track record of efficient and practical atmospheric and water recycling systems.

When asked by this reporter why he had left the Russians out of his presentation, he explained that he did not take their systems very seriously. “We don’t have faith in them,” he said.

To put it mildly, when it comes to space exploration, U.S. space officials have deve loped the annoying habit of underestimating the Russians.

In 1957, the Soviet Union made no secret of its plans to put a satellite in orbit as its contribution to the International Geophysical Year, a worldwide research event organized by scientists from July 1957 through December 1958.

No one in the United States government paid much attention, and so the nation was shocked when Sputnik suddenly appeared in orbit on Oct. 4, 1957.

Nothing, it seems, has changed in nearly 50 years. With all the talk about space tourism and Bush’s space exploration initiative, it becomes crucially important to recognize the competitive nature of nations, and how the United States is not the only country with a desire and skills to colonize the solar system.

So it might be prudent to consider the possibility that the first humans to reach Mars might be speaking Russian — not English — when they get there.

Robert Zimmerman is an independent space historian. His most recent book, “Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel,” was awarded the Eugene M. Emme Award by the American Astronautical Society for the best popular space history in 2003.

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