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60 years after Gagarin, Russia lags in the space race

Written by  Tuesday, 06 April 2021 08:48
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Korolyov, Russia (AFP) April 7, 2021
A station on the moon! A mission to Venus! A next generation spacecraft! Sixty years after the Soviet Union made history by launching Yuri Gagarin into space on April 12, 1961, Russia continues to have lofty extraterrestrial ambitions, but its ability to realise them is more down to earth. Project after project has been announced and then delayed, as grand designs fall victim to funding

A station on the moon! A mission to Venus! A next generation spacecraft!

Sixty years after the Soviet Union made history by launching Yuri Gagarin into space on April 12, 1961, Russia continues to have lofty extraterrestrial ambitions, but its ability to realise them is more down to earth.

Project after project has been announced and then delayed, as grand designs fall victim to funding problems or bureaucratic inertia. The Kremlin's attention meanwhile is fixed on military ventures rather than space exploration.

A case in point is the project to replace Russia's ageing Soyuz capsule, a workhorse that has been ferrying astronauts into space since the 1960s and continues to be used for trips to the International Space Station.

First announced in 2009, the project to replace the Soyuz has been repeatedly pushed back. Even the name of the proposed capsule has changed multiple times, from the "Federation" to the "Oryol" (Eagle) and then a proposed smaller version called the "Orlyonok".

RKK Energia, the firm that builds the Soyuz, was awarded a development contract for the project.

Standing in a museum at Energia's offices celebrating Soviet space accomplishments, the head of the firm's flight centre Alexander Kaleri boasts that the new capsule will be "bigger, with more powerful engines and more comfortable than the Soyuz."

But Kaleri, a veteran cosmonaut who flew several missions into space and spent months on the ISS and Mir space stations, admits the project is a long way from taking off.

"The goal is to carry out a first pilot-less test flight by 2023. For now we are starting by testing models for the capsule, it's a fairly long process."

- Stagnating projects -

Russian space expert Vitaly Yegorov says the lengthy development is hardly surprising given "the technical difficulties, Western sanctions against the Russian space industry and a lack of funding" for the space programme.

With the Soyuz still flying, there is also no "acute need" for a replacement, he says.

Other projects have also stagnated, including the next generation Angara-A5 rockets meant to carry Russian space capsules, which have been in development since the 1990s but have launched only twice in test mode, in 2014 and 2020.

The Nauka laboratory module intended for the ISS, which began assembly in the 1990s, has also suffered a string of failures that have prevented it from entering orbit.

Despite these setbacks, Dmitry Rogozin -- a nationalist politician and former diplomat now in charge of Russian space agency Roscosmos -- continues to make bombastic claims about future projects.

He has announced ventures to bring back samples from Venus and a rocket capable of making 100 round trips to space and back.

After Russia pulled out of the US-led international Lunar Gateway project -- a space station in lunar orbit whose first modules are to be launched in 2024 -- Moscow and Beijing announced plans this March for a rival space station, but without a timetable or budget.

A former Roscosmos official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it is clear that Rogozin's projects are pie in the sky.

The Roscosmos chief promises President Vladimir Putin "that they will go to the Moon, Mars or Venus," the official said. "But his promises extend into the 2030s, when neither of them will be in power."

Russian space expert Vadim Lukashevich said the problem for Roscosmos is that when it comes to scientific projects, Putin's mind is not on space exploration.

"The priority for the Kremlin is military projects, especially the development of missiles," he said.

- 'Putin talks about missiles' -

Putin frequently trumpets Russia's hypersonic weapons, which he says can strike an enemy like a "meteorite".

"You see with what inspiration Putin talks about new weapons and missiles," Lukashevich says.

So while Russian defence spending has grown significantly in the last two decades, Roscosmos has seen its budget falling year by year.

Last year Rogozin announced that the space industry's 2016-2025 total budget of 1.4 trillion rubles ($18.4 billion, 15.6 billion euros) was being cut by 10 percent for the last five years.

And as Russia's space industry stalls, its competitors, including now the private sector, are moving forward.

Russia last year lost its monopoly over ISS launches when reusable rockets from Space X -- a company owned by US billionaire Elon Musk -- delivered NASA astronauts to the station.

Roscosmos is wary of partnerships with private companies, Yegorov says, fearing this could syphon away the "state space budget and contracts".

The industry is meanwhile beset with corruption, including multiple scandals over the construction of the new Vostochny launchpad in the Far East.

"There is hardly any space company left whose officials have not been replaced or arrested," laments the former Roscosmos staffer.

"Today the industry is run by newcomers without training in space technologies."

Milestones in space exploration
Paris (AFP) April 7, 2021 - From Yuri Gagarin to the first man on the Moon and the robot that landed on a comet, we look at 10 key dates in space exploration.

- 1957: Sputnik -

Moscow launches the first satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957, ushering in the Cold War tussle for the cosmos.

The beach ball-sized aluminium sphere takes 98 minutes to orbit the Earth and sends back the first message from space, simple "beep-beep-beep" radio signals.

A month later Sputnik 2 carries the first living being to fully orbit the Earth, a small street dog called Laika. She dies after a few hours.

- 1961: Gagarin, first man -

On April 12, 1961 Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space, completing a single, 108-minute orbit aboard Vostok-1.

Twenty-three days later Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space when he makes a 15-minute trip.

On June 16, 1963 cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space.

It takes a full 40 years for the old Cold War rivals to be joined in space by a third country, when China sends up Yang Liwei onboard Earth orbiter Shenzhou 5.

- 1969: Walking on the Moon -

US astronaut Neil Armstrong is the first man to step onto the Moon on July 21, 1969, Buzz Aldrin joining him around 20 minutes later.

Between 1969 and 1972, 10 astronauts -- all American -- walked on the Moon as part of NASA's Apollo programme.

- 1971: Space station -

The Soviet Union launches the first orbital space station, Salyut 1, on April 19, 1971.

Another Russian space station, Mir, follows. It is brought back to Earth in 2001 after 15 years in orbit.

Construction of the still-operating International Space Station (ISS) starts in 1998. The biggest man-made structure in space, it orbits Earth 16 times a day.

- 1976: Mars -

US spacecraft Viking 1 becomes the first to successfully land on Mars on July 20, 1976 and sends back images of the Red Planet.

The robot Opportunity explored Mars between 2004 and 2018, with NASA's Curiosity Rover still active there.

About 40 missions are sent to Mars, more than half of which fail.

- 1981: Space shuttle -

The US space shuttle Columbia, the first reusable manned spacecraft, makes its first voyage on April 12, 1981.

It is followed by Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, which serve the ISS until the shuttle programme winds up in 2011.

The US has since depended on Russia to transport its astronauts to the ISS.

Two US shuttles were destroyed in flight, with the loss of 14 astronauts: Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

- 1990: Hubble -

Hubble is the first space telescope to be placed into orbit on April 25, 1990, 547 kilometres (340 miles) above the Earth.

It revolutionises astronomy, allowing scientists to observe the planets and distant stars and galaxies unimpeded.

- 2001: Tourism -

On April 28, 2001 Italian American multi-millionaire Dennis Tito, 60, becomes the world's first space tourist. He pays Russia $20 million to stay on the ISS for eight days.

In all, seven space tourists have taken Russian flights to the ISS.

The US company SpaceX is planning to launch its first space tourism mission at the end of 2021.

- 2008: SpaceX -

SpaceX becomes the first private firm to successfully launch a rocket into the Earth's orbit in September 2008.

Its Dragon cargo ship becomes the first commercial spacecraft to visit the ISS in May 2012, on a mission for NASA.

Since then, SpaceX has conquered the satellite launch market with its Falcon 9.

After flights in 2020, SpaceX has planned two other manned launches for NASA to the ISS in 2021, including one which will lift off from Florida on April 22 with French, American and Japanese astronauts.

- 2014: Comet landing -

The European Space Agency places a small robot, Philae, on a comet more than 500 million kilometres from Earth on November 12, 2014. The first comet lander is part of a mission aiming to explore the origins of the Solar System.

The manmade object that is furthest away from the Earth is the unmanned US spaceship Voyager 1, launched in 1977 and still travelling.

In August 2012 it made it into interstellar space, about 13 billion miles from Earth.

- 2021: Moon to Mars -

NASA sees the Moon as a pit stop for missions to Mars. It aims to send the first woman to the Moon by 2024.

Perseverance became the fifth rover to set wheels down on Mars on February 18, laying the groundwork for NASA's first attempt at powered, controlled flight on another planet.

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