By Bernard Casey
If it can be said that the 1957 Soviet launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite triggered a global space race, then Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's 1961 maiden journey into outer space and orbit of the Earth surely secured Russia's legacy as the global leader in space exploration. This legacy includes technological advances in aerospace engineering, astronomy, physics, microelectronics, telecommunications, and innumerable other byproduct applications. Today, Russia's space industry remains a vital part of economy, involving more than 100 companies employing more than 250,000 people as of 2006, according to the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. Moving forward, Russia's continued development of its exploratory, commercial, and military space activities will ensure its national competitive advantage in space, accelerate its economic modernization, and enhance its national security.
The most ambitious modern Russian space program to date is the $150 billion International Space Station (ISS), the successor to the Russian Mir Space Station which operated in space from 1986 to 2001. The ISS was actually a merger in 1993 of Russia's Mir-2 Space Station with two other proposed space stations, the US's Freedom and the EU's Columbus. The Mir and the ISS have been serviced by the Russian Soyuz manned spacecraft, the Russian Proton unmanned spacecraft, and the US Space Shuttle. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, instead arranging for US astronauts to reach the ISS aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. In July 2011, Russia announced plans to replace its existing Soyuz spacecraft with a new spacecraft that will begin testing in 2015, and that will have "elements of multi-use whose level will be much higher than they are today," according to deputy head of the Federal Space Agency of Russia (RosCosmos), Vitaliy Davydov. Another potential supply line to the ISS was opened in May, when the Dragon spacecraft, developed by the private US company Space Exploration Technologies Company (SpaceX), successfully reached the ISS. Russia plans to decommission the ISS by sinking it in the ocean in 2020. Russia's next space station, OPSEK, is currently being assembled on the ISS.
There are even vital Russian contributions to the $2.6 billion US Curiosity Mars exploration rover (MER) that landed on Mars earlier this month to study the surface of the planet in search of evidence of life. The MER is equipped with a Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) detector, a neutron spectrometer which measures subsurface water distribution, and which was actually developed by Russia's Space Research Institute (IKI) and RosCosmos. Previous iterations of Russia's DAN technology, which were used in earlier NASA missions to Mars, detected ice at higher elevations on the red planet.
Russia's potential in the growing commercial space industry is huge. In June, Sergei Zhukov, head of the Space Technology and Telecommunications Cluster at Skolkovo Innovation Centre, described the potential of the commercial space industry: "Indeed, the world economy is becoming more and more dependent on the intensity of space activities. The market for space technology production and services is variously estimated at between $300 billion and $400 billion a year. It has several segments, the biggest being satellite communications and telecommunications (over $100 billion), navigation and distance Earth sensing. Russia's share in these segments is less than one percent. In the production of satellites of various kinds, our share is 7-10 percent. Our share is traditionally high - 33 to 40 percent - in orbiting payloads, but that segment is small, about $3 billion a year."
Over the period of 2007-2011, Russia made the most successful orbital launches of satellites, typically 25-30 per year, in most years double that of its nearest competitors, the US and China, according to logs from SpaceFlightNow and RussianSpaceWeb. However, Russia's quest for superiority in the commercial space race has not been without its glitches, most notably an alarmingly high number of failed missile launches and satellite losses. After the most recent loss of both a Russian satellite and an Indonesian satellite after a failed Russian Proton carrier rocket on August 7, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev took urgent action.
On August 14, Medvedev chaired a meeting with officials from his cabinet and RosCosmos to determine the cause of these failures and to determine "the practical steps that are envisaged to improve the quality of the industry". In his opening remarks and online commentary, Medvedev said, "Our country annually provides up to 40% of all space launches in the world. In this regard, we have very good opportunities, but we need to draw conclusions from the series of problems that currently exist. We have had an accident during the launch of space vehicles with an unenviable degree of regularity. Over the past year and a half - seven emergency starts, 10 satellites lost. We need to decide who is to blame for this series of recent setbacks, where mistakes were made, and to determine the degree of responsibility of all implicated in these problems. Issues of quality control remain an acute problem in production in the space industry. They must be worked out at the Government level within one month and then I will hold a meeting with the participation of all key businesses." Medvedev also reiterated that Russia plans to invest 650 billion rubles ($20.4 billion) in the space industry for the period 2012-2015.
The most significant project to be targeted with this investment is the planned $13.5 billion Vostochny Cosmodrome, which is anticipated to be used for unmanned rocket launches starting in 2015 and manned mission launches starting in 2018. The impetus for this project is a desire to reduce Russia's reliance on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which costs Russia $115 million a year to rent, instead moving such launches to Russian territory. Part of the investment will be used to develop the infrastructure in Vostochny necessary to accommodate up to 25,000 cosmodrome employees and up to 35,000 residents, whom are all expected to be relocated there, as well as tourists. In August 2010, then- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin emphasized the priority of this project: "The creation of a new space center ... is one of modern Russia's biggest and most ambitious projects".
The Russian Government, in conjunction with private equity investors, is also targeting investment in space-related innovation. The Space Technology and Telecommunications Cluster at Skolkovo Innovation Centre currently supports 47 companies. These include:
- Russia's Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, and Information Satellite Systems, which are, together with Skolkovo, jointly setting up the Scientific Research Institute of Space Technologies (SRIST) to develop new space technologies for unmanned and manned space systems
- Russia's NPO Energomash, which is developing a new highly combustible "acetyl" rocket fuel;
- Russia's Industrial Geodesic Systems, which is undertaking a project to build the land infrastructure of the GLONASS/GPS system;
- RosCosmos, and Scientific and Production Corporation (NPC) "REKOD", which are collaborating with Skolkovo on higher educational training of space industry workers, and increasing the competitiveness of the Russian space industry;
- The UK's International Space Innovation Centre (ISIC), which is collaborating with Skolkovo on the NovaSAR S-band civilian radar;
- and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which is collaborating with Skolkovo on commercial cosmonautics (or "space tourism").
Another promising technology that is not yet publicly associated with the Space Cluster at Skolkovo is Massive Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) technology, which was developed, as the name implies, for online gamers. However, MMOG technology is increasingly being used in rocket science - including rocket launch simulation - and in other high-risk activities such as military mission planning, disaster response preparedness, aircraft development, surgery, and many others.
In the military space sector, many will recall that, in 1983, US President Ronald Reagan proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which entailed space-based systems, such as satellites equipped with multiple x-ray lasers, to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). SDI came to be frequently referred to pejoratively as "Star Wars" by those who doubted its feasibility. SDI was officially cancelled by the US Congress in 1995, but some elements of the program, including the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Project (HAARP), which can generate super high-powered, directed beams of energy and shoot them 200 km into the sky towards incoming missiles, continue without Congressional authorization. Not surprisingly, in response, Russia and China are both rumored to be separately also pursuing the development of their own HAARP technology.
Government investments in space activities are increasingly controversial, and justifiably so in many cases, in this age of global financial crisis and national austerity budgets. However, in the case of Russia, with its preeminent space exploration legacy, its spectacular commercial space potential, and its national security threats, the Russian Government is wise to continue its ambitious space innovation and modernization program unabated.