The early years of the space race were often driven by the Soviet Union. In a race against the USA, it launched the first satellite and the first astronaut and made considerable advances in rocket technology.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia reorganized its space program under Roskosmos, a state agency. From the start, the struggling agency focused on working with partners who could provide the technical, scientific, and financial resources it needed to maintain its leadership in an increasingly competitive global space race. In the 1990s, it had much to offer in return, including expertise in building and operating a space station. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration has joined forces with the Russians on the International Space Station.
Roscosmos also inherited missile technology. In the early 1990s, upgraded versions of Soyuz, a Soviet missile first launched in 1966, and Proton, a Soviet missile launched in 1965, were still reliable and in service.
The European Space Agency was concerned at the time that it could not maintain access to space by relying on its own or American rockets. In 1996, an agreement was reached to allow France-based Arianespace SA, the world’s first private launch vehicle, to market and operate Soyuz rockets. Roscosmos and the Europeans agreed a few years later to build Soyuz launch facilities at the French-operated European Spaceport in French Guiana.
It was a successful business. Europe gained access to launch services, and Russia received an important financial lifeline. As recently as 2013, Russia controlled around half of the world’s commercial launch industry.
But competition threatened. In the 2000s, SpaceX, founded by electric car pioneer Elon Musk on the belief that rockets don’t need to be monopolized by government-backed contractors, led to a 20-fold reduction in the cost of a commercial launch. By 2020, SpaceX represented half of the commercial satellite launch market, and Russia had declined to 10%.
That was a problem. Over the years, when Russia’s economy had struggled, Roskosmos had relied on commercial activity for funding. As companies moved elsewhere, that funding suffered. Between 2014 and 2020, Roscosmos’ budget dropped from $5 billion to $1.4 billion (NASA’s 2021 budget was $23.3 billion). Last year, President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia must master new rocket technologies in order to compete with SpaceX for commercial space launches – and then proceeded to further cut funding for Russia’s space activities.
Roscosmos could still rely on the International Space Station and its commercial collaborations with Europa for funding. The main European example was a record $1 billion deal signed by OneWeb, a UK satellite broadband provider, for 21 launches over Arianespace.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine and imposed sanctions from the European Union, and the UK Roscosmos responded by halting rocket operations and recalling Russian personnel from the French Guiana spaceport. This left four European satellites and a space telescope in search of new launch vehicles.
A few days later, Roscosmos told OneWeb that it would not launch its satellites unless it received guarantees that the satellites would not be used for military purposes, and that the UK government would divest itself of OneWeb. OneWeb responded by hiring SpaceX to take Russia’s place. The European Space Agency told Russia it would no longer collaborate on a joint Mars mission that it could afford alone.
Roscosmos cannot do that. With sanctions and Russia’s belligerence towards its European partners, who would stop? That leaves no obvious way for a once-proud space program to remain relevant as a space power.
Roscosmos remains an International Space Station partner, but shows little serious interest in working with — or even on friendly terms with — NASA. A merger with China is an option, but Russia would find itself in the unwelcome position of serving as a junior partner in China’s better-funded and (over the past decade) far more successful space program. A darker option is that Russia will resort to asserting its importance through demonstrations of space weapons, including anti-satellite weapons.
Whatever route the Russian leadership takes back to space, it is unlikely to restore their nation’s status as a space pioneer. Instead, thanks to Ukraine, it’s become history’s first space-also-ran.
More from the Bloomberg Opinion:
• How Elon Musk beat Russia’s space program: Leonid Bershidsky
• The US and Russia have yet to get along in space: Adam Minter
• Russia, the US and China are locked in a scary new space race: Tobin Harshaw
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adam Minter is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion. He is the author of Junkyard Planet: Traveling the Billion Dollar Garbage Trade and Secondhand: Traveling the New Global Flea Market.