The head of Russia’s space agency makes news again

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The following stories are all the result of statements made by Vladimir Popovkin, the head of Roscosmos, the Russian Federal space agency, during a radio interview yesterday.

This is the same guy that only a few weeks ago was throwing accusations at the U.S. for the failure of Phobos-Grunt.

What should we make of these statements? First, everything Popovkin says is aimed at fund-raising. Whatever his background, he is a political appointee whose job is to generate interest and funding for Russia’s space program. Everything he says in public must be weighed against this reality. That he first tried to shift the blame to the U.S. for Phobos-Grunt’s loss was an effort to absolve his program from any blame and thus reduce the possibility that the Russian government might cut his funding. Now that his agency has gotten approval of its insurance payment for the failure, however, he is free to say otherwise.

Second, these announcements give us a clear indication of where the Russia space effort is heading, and that effort looks both thoughtful and intelligent.

For example, while Popovkin’s statement that a Russian manned landing on the Moon could happen by 2020 is a bit of hype, it is not absurd by any means. Moreover, it fits well with other news, such as yesterday’s announcement by Space Adventures that they will do a circumlunar tourist mission by 2017, using the same Russian Soyuz capsule first developed in the 1960s for this purpose and used by the Russians for the past fifty years to put people in orbit. Russia also has two lunar unmanned missions planned for launch by 2015. These facts suggest that they are not only aiming for the Moon in the near term, they have the capability to get there.

In the longer term, Popovkin’s public support for an extended Russian expedition on ISS, modeled after the seventeen month long ground-based Mars500 expedition, means that the Russians are increasingly becoming tired of NASA’s foot-dragging. For years they have proposed long expeditions on ISS only to have these projects shot down by the American space agency, something that I have never understood. If humans are ever going to travel beyond Earth orbit to the other planets this research is essential. The medical and engineering challenges of such a mission need to be tested, and the place to do it is in Earth orbit.

For Popovkin to throw his support behind such a mission suggests that Russia has decided to go it alone. This is a very good thing.

Overall, these proposals suggest that the Russians are beginning to put together a reasonable short and long term program for manned space exploration. First, they will aim at the Moon, learning how to get humans there safely. At the same time, they intend to begin the serious research for longer interplanetary missions, using ISS as their testbed.

Whether any of this program will actually happen is of course unknown. Many things can change in a short time. Moreover, the Russians have made pronouncements like this in the past, only to have the projects fizzle.

Nonetheless, I would not take Popovkin’s statements lightly. The Russians want to explore the solar system, and eventually they are going to do it. The only real question is whether they do it sooner or later.


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