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'A Single Clenched Fist': Russia Defiant But Anxious As U.S. Seeks To End Its Monopoly On Manned Space Flight

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Astronauts Doug Hurley (left) and Robert Behnken on their way to SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft.

MOSCOW -- As veteran NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken made final preparations aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule for the first manned orbital flight from U.S. soil in almost a decade, the Russian company that operates the famed Soyuz rocket marked a milestone of its own.

“On this day in 2019, the Soyuz-2 was struck by the lightning 14 seconds after the liftoff. The mission wasn’t affected,” tweeted the company, GK Launch Services. “Lightning is no problem for the Soyuz-2.”

The post to GK’s 1,500 followers might have gone unnoticed if events at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center had not unfolded the way they did. Less than 16 minutes before SpaceX’s scheduled liftoff on May 27, it was scrubbed due to fears of a lightning strike. Instead it was the oddly prescient tweet that took off, winning GK sarcastic praise on social media for mastering “the art of trolling.”

On May 30, Hurley and Behnken were successfully launched into space on SpaceX’s second attempt, allowing the buccaneering start-up founded by American inventor Elon Musk in 2002 to break Russia's nearly decade-long monopoly on manned space flight.

The GK tweet tapped the combination of admiration, anxiety, and defiance with which government officials, state TV pundits, and ordinary space industry observers in Russia have greeted that news.

Financial Losses

Since 2011, when U.S. space agency NASA retired its Space Shuttle program after nearly 30 years, Moscow has played a crucial role in facilitating American trips to the International Space Station (ISS), earning not only a reputation as a solid partner but also a steady income stream selling seats on its aged but reliable Soyuz spacecraft for upwards of $80 million. If successful, the SpaceX launch could spell the end of this lucrative partnership.

“This means huge financial losses,” said Ivan Moiseyev, a senior figure at the Institute of Space Policy, a Moscow think tank. “It signals the end of a comfortable revenue source, and the termination of long-standing contracts.”

SpaceX is not simply picking up where the U.S. government’s Space Shuttle program left off in 2011. Delivering astronauts to space on a rocket engineered and manufactured by a private company, it is also culminating a decades-long campaign to make space into a new frontier of capitalism, throwing the gauntlet to Russian giants of the industry that inherited Soviet technology and at times saw their leading role in space exploration as assured.

Preconditions for that monumental shift were set in motion in 2014, when the U.S. government awarded contracts totalling some $6.8 billion to SpaceX and Boeing, another private company, to develop space exploration. In May, NASA inked another eight-year contract with Russia for a seat on the Soyuz spacecraft. It could be the last such contract signed.

Soyuz Rocket Launch Succeeds After October Failure
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WATCH: Soyuz Rocket Launch Succeeds After October Failure

Vadim Lukashevich, an aerospace engineer and aviation expert, believes a successful launch by SpaceX will force Russia’s space industry to innovate. The steady income it accrued from delivering U.S. astronauts to the ISS has become a “narcotic,” he said, which encouraged complacency and stifled progress.

“Either we will pass into history along with all of our space achievements, like Portugal with its discovery of America and the voyages of Magellan,” he said in an interview with TV channel Moskva-24, “or we will have to seriously do something.”

Restructuring

Russia’s space agency Roskosmos was restructured in 2015 amid efforts to revive an industry that has seen its funding streams decline and equipment age since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 -- NASA's annual expenditure almost equals Roskosmos’s 10-year budget cycle. In May 2015, following another in a series of rocket failures, Roskosmos head Dmitry Rogozin cited a "systemic crisis" in the Russian space industry and promised sweeping changes.

But Russia will remain a powerful player in the space industry whether SpaceX succeeds or not, analysts said. With relations between the former Cold War superpowers at their lowest level in years, the space industry is one of a few areas in which bilateral cooperation continues. Foreign astronauts will continue to fly on Soyuz rockets under international agreements that require cosmonauts to become familiar with all types of spacecraft during training.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon
SpaceX's Crew Dragon

“Russia will continue to be a space power, one of three capable of organizing manned flights to the ISS,” said Vitaly Yegorov, a Russian blogger and space enthusiast, adding that China is the third. “The main thing Roskosmos will lose is money.”

For many Russian space fans, the prospect of a private U.S. company upstaging Roskosmos is a fascinating new development in an already dynamic industry. Readers of Yegorov’s blog have followed events carefully, commenting on the various stages of SpaceX’s program. But many have also voiced nostalgia or bitterness.

“This will feel like a defeat mainly to those Russians who like to think the United States can’t do anything right,” he said. “Some people react to these events under the influence of our media, and our media often likes to talk about the U.S. dependence on Russia.”

Indeed, Russian state TV actively covered preparations for the aborted May 27 launch, and some commentators issued a triumphant note upon news of its failure. “They wrote the script in advance,” a presenter on flagship news channel Rossia-24 crowed.

“The Americans think this will be a breakthrough,” pro-Kremlin talk-show host Vladimir Solovyov said on his weekly radio program on May 27. “But maybe they're celebrating too early? Maybe it's too early for them to say they've beaten and overtaken us?"

Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, did not hold back in his assessment of events.

“The Americans, with help from NATO and their allies, are purposefully seeking to make space into a sphere of military activity and possible clashes between our countries," he told Russian Defense Ministry TV channel Zvezda.

For its part, Roskosmos has shifted between coy and combative in its response to the steady erosion of its influence. It has not concealed its dissatisfaction with SpaceX, whose rapid progress has ensured that the Russian behemoth’s market share of “heavy” rocket launches has declined from an estimated 15 percent in 2016 to 6 percent in 2018.

“They’re constantly criticising Musk, accusing him of all kinds of things,” said Moiseyev.

In March 2019, when an unmanned SpaceX Dragon craft successfully docked at the ISS in a major milestone for the company, a congratulatory tweet from Roskosmos failed to name Musk’s company, praising NASA instead.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk

Ahead of the aborted May 27 launch, Rogozin wished his American counterparts luck -- again without mentioning SpaceX or Musk.

Last month, Rogozin reiterated his charge that SpaceX was engaging in “price dumping” by lowering the cost of its commercial space launches in order to drive out rivals, and suggested Roskosmos would cut its own prices by 30 percent to undercut the competition.

But in a radio interview on May 26, Rogozin set out the stakes of the current moment and described the task at hand for Russia in stark, combative terms.

“We must gather everything into a single clenched fist,” he said. “Only with a single clenched fist can we fight off the aggressive competition from our Western partners.”

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