The U.S. and the rising Russian space program

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The Russians yesterday successfully launched their first space telescope since the fall of the Soviet Union. Here is a Google translation of a Russian article describing Spektr-R’s research goals:

[Spektr-R is] designed to study galaxies and quasars in the radio, the study of black holes and neutron stars in the Milky Way, as well as the regions immediately adjacent to the massive black holes. In addition, using the observatory, scientists expect to receive information about pulsars and the interstellar plasma. It is planned that the “Spektr-R” will work in orbit for at least 5 years.

Though this particular space telescope is probably not going to rewrite the science of astrophysics, its launch is historically significant. It indicates that Russia has just about recovered from the seventy-plus years of bankrupt communist rule that ended in 1990.

During the Soviet era the country’s economy could not function, ruled as it was from the top down by ideology and good intentions. The result was economic collapse, which made the financing of scientific research such as the construction and launch of new astrophysics space telescopes the last thing on anyone’s mind. As much as the Russians wanted to do this kind of work, they simply didn’t have any spare cash. Instead, they had to scramble to just to stay alive.

For example, during the 1990s I knew one Russian geologist who, instead of studying caves as he preferred, was forced to come to New York for a year to work in an upholstery repair shop to make some money to feed his family. He was making slightly above minimum wage, but for him it was a fortune compared to the dismal Soviet standard of living. In the end he moved his entire family to the United States, settling in sunny Florida.

Then there was the Russian manned program. When the Soviet Union fell apart, that program was also left penniless. They suddenly learned the importance of capitalism and profit, and made a great effort to sell their space program to any customer. They sold a seat to Mir to the Tokyo Broadcasting Company. They flew tourists to ISS. And they made a deal with the U.S. government, worth almost half a billion dollars, to fly American astronauts to Mir as part of the shuttle-Mir program in the 1990s. Without this extra capital, the entire Russian manned program would have vanished. That foreign aid as well as the profits earned from the tourist flights tided their manned program over through the worst years until their economy recovered sufficiently for their government to be able to once again finance the program.

In the more than twenty years since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has focused entirely on allowing private enterprise to flourish rather than trying to use its government to run everything. The result has been a booming economy that has pumped a lot of cash into that central government, despite having a simple and low flat tax of about thirteen percent per person. Because of this, the Russian government is thus able to finally fund some new space missions. In addition to Spektr-R, later this year the Russians hope to launch Phobos-Grunt, a sample return mission aimed at Mars’s moon Phobos.

So, what lessons might this Russian history teach us about the political battles going on right now in Washington, D.C. over the federal debt and the size of the federal government as well as the future of the United States? To me this is a no-brainer: stop asking government to do everything, shrink its size and power as much as possible, and allow individual freedom to run your economy. If you do that, your society will always have enough surplus capital to do any space research you desire.

Whether we will have the sense do learn this lesson before our society collapses like the Soviet Union remains an open question. At the moment I am sadly pessimistic.



  • i’m optimistic! i think we will find a way . i we love to see a simple and low flat tax in america our tax code is crazy it would be cool if we didn’t need the irs or if the irs could be greatly reduced

  • Joe2

    Having spent time in Russia, I would have to say that your ode to Russian ‘capitalism’ is a bit over stated. There fat coffers have a lot more to do with the current price of oil than any move toward free markets (please keep in mind that for distribution of goods and services, I am a supporter of free markets).

    That being said, they have allocated some significant part of that increased money to build a whole new launch center within Russian borders; as well as new (bigger) launch vehicles and a bigger crew transport

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