‘Roscosmos is bigger than SpaceX but smaller than NASA’
Astronautics populariser Vitaly Yegorov on Elon Musk’s flights and Russia’s future in space
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon flight became a sensation in the space world — a private company has sent astronauts to space for the first time in history. In this light, Russia’s lagging behind the USA in the “space race” has been tabled again. Realnoe Vremya talked with astronautics populariser Vitaly Yegorov, who is also famous as Zelenyikot, what this lagging behind means, how it appeared and what to do with it (spoiler — Russia should become a “space carrier” for the whole world).
Elon Musk and NASA’s shelf
The launch of Crew Dragon is considered as a triumph of astronautics and particularly private astronautics. Is this true?
For America and NASA, cooperation with private astronautics isn’t new in general. But SpaceX is the so-called new space, this term is rarely used in Russia. It is new companies that have appeared in the 21st century, achieved or try to achieve great successes. We saw a new company come that has achieved such a success as manned launch despite everything, while the launch of a pilot to space is a super league of astronautics. America has returned a chance of sending people to space together with Russia and China. This, of course, is very important.
The achievements of SpaceX are important for astronautics in the world as a demonstration of possibilities of private astronautics, the attraction of attention to it and the attraction of investments. Precisely the demonstration of the private company in space was more important than the attraction of investments for countries with broad state participation in astronautics such as China or Russia. The state, in fact, also has to put effort to develop its private astronautics. The USA achieved such results mainly thanks to this. Not even the money that USA in the person of NASA and Pentagon hand over to Elon Musk is the case but the legal basis that was prepared for it and that provided a possibility of the appearance of such companies.
We saw a new company come that has achieved such a success as manned launch despite everything, while a launch of a pilot to space is a super league of astronautics
Why is this legal basis unique?
For instance, the USA has a clear ban on public organisations from investing in the development of products and services that are already available in the market. There were even scandals when a private company developed something, while the country then places a public order on the development of the same system. And the private company quite reasonably sued the state and won. Both Musk did this and there were other precedents. It is very important: this is unimaginable in Russia.
Another moment: Musk is criticised a lot that he took all technologies from NASA. It is a very remote interpretation of the truth, Musk mastered a lot of technologies himself. But he borrowed some elements of the construction and principles of work, there was some groundwork, and the state paid for lots of this. After that, it is said in Russia: “So he isn’t actually an individual entrepreneur, he took everything from the state, CIA helped him to obtain secret developments,” it is a demonstration of that a private company can’t achieve such successes in astronautics.
It is real, it is the norm in the USA. Firstly, if NASA has all these developments on the shelf, why does it buys Russian RD-180 engines from us? It means that NASA doesn’t have it all. But NASA has a lot of very interesting things on the shelf, and anybody — not only Elon Musk but any individual entrepreneur in the USA — can go and take these interesting things if he obtains licences and signed any agreement. And there are a lot of examples of this kind.
For instance, Bigelow Aerospace borrowed the development of inflatable module from NASA, invested its $500 million, launched the module to the ISS. Now they had to close because of the coronacrisis — they will maybe open in the next years. Moon Express company is another example. It borrowed NASA’s technology of landing small spacecraft on the Moon, developed it for several years with its money, attracted €90 million of investments and now obtained a public contract from NASA to deliver a payload to the Moon.
NASA has a lot of very interesting things on the shelf, and anybody — not only Elon Musk but any individual entrepreneur in the USA — can go and take these interesting things if he obtains licences and signed any agreement
What terms can a private company borrow the US government’s technology on?
On simple terms: come and take. If you are an American, if your company pays taxes to the US budget, come and take. Their principle is: a technology developed with public money belongs to the people. This is why any American can go and use this technology.
There was even a scandal: a company developed a technology with NASA’s money, while a rival company went to NASA and used this technology. Then the first company was indignant: “NASA, why are you handing out the technology?” And this happens. They came to a compromise in the end. But in general this is a common practice. And SpaceX doesn’t have any preferences here. They just take advantage of the opportunities fixed in the US legislation.
After the launch of Crew Dragon, you wrote in your blog that Russian astronautics was 10 years late than American. Where is this manifested except the successes of SpaceX?
Many considered my phrase as Russia’s lagging precisely behind SpaceX. Actually, no: Roscosmos still has a wide range of competences in space. Roscosmos is bigger than SpaceX but smaller than NASA. If we consider all areas American astronautics develops in, interplanetary manned spacecraft will be one of the key indicators (Orion interplanetary spacecraft is getting ready for tests of the first-stage engine in America).
If we consider all areas American astronautics develops in, interplanetary manned spacecraft will be one of the key indicators
In this area in Russia, there is just the president’s order so far, money hasn’t been allocated on it. Oryol spacecraft must be an analogue of Orion — it was made of carbon composite first, but then they understood it was too expensive. Next, it was made according to German technology, but after Crimea, it became clear this technology would be impossible in Russia and they had to go back to aluminium. And as I understand, the money is out at this stage. But today there is some movement, but there is uncertainty too, what rocket it will fly on and where.
So the work is still on paper. Some separate parts have probably been made, but it won’t be possible to make by 2023, the deadline. It is impossible to make spacecraft for four years.
To sum up, we have just the president’s order for the rocket, the spacecraft is in the state as of 2010-2011 of what happened to Orion. Here are the 10 years of lag. Another thing is that it is unclear if we need the Moon, if we need it. But if we compare precisely the possibilities, it is 10 years.
Space as pre-electoral campaign
By the way, space successes of Russia and America or Russia and other countries are constantly compared. Meanwhile, same Musk called the flight of Crew Dragon an achievement of all humankind. Is such a “national” approach to the evaluation of successes appropriate then?
There is some sense in this approach. No matter how much we say the Earth is one, humankind is one, every country has a different budget. And every state itself makes a decision if it should allocate money on astronautics and how much to allocate. And the people of this state provide the possibilities with their economic activity, replenish the budget. And the people of the country expresses (or doesn’t express) support for those areas the budget is spent on.
At the same time, space is used as the propaganda of possibilities of the state. In domestic politics, it is “Look, how cool are we, what rockets do we have!” And in foreign politics, these possibilities are demonstrated on the international stage: “Look, our science, economy and lifestyle (which was especially topical in the Soviet Union). The latter has already been lost, capitalism is our lifestyle, though with Russian specifics.
America has this ideological component now too: it poses itself as the flagship of humankind that leads everybody to a “correct healthy lifestyle and glittering future”
Mainly this ideological component supported the development of astronautics in the USSR. America has this ideological component now too: it poses itself as the flagship of humankind that leads everybody to a “correct healthy lifestyle and glittering future”. This gives it certain advantages both on the international stage and in domestic politics.
The current Moon programme of the USA is Trump’s full electoral programme. They promise to send a male or female astronaut to the Moon by 2024 — it is the end of Trump’s hypothetical presidential term. Consequently, he says: “Choose me, and an American will be on the Moon by the end of my presidency”.
When we say that Roscosmos wants to the Moon, for instance, the Ministry of Finance asks: “What’s the benefit of this for the president? Isn’t it better to solve some worldly problems — to build more bridges or repair roads?” The budget doesn’t have much money, there are a lot of tasks, while there have been more tasks with the coming of the coronavirus. So the probability Roscosmos will go to the Moon is lower now than it was six months ago.
Does Roscosmos in general have a chance to go to the Moon and when?
This is a question for the Ministry of Finance. As for the technical possibility, it could perform this task with enough financing, to deliver a Russian to the near-the-Moon space in the next 10 years, maybe even land on the surface of the Moon. But in the current realities, this is very doubtful.
When we say that Roscosmos wants to the Moon, for instance, the Ministry of Finance asks: “What’s the benefit of this for the president? Isn’t it better to solve some worldly problems — to build more bridges or repair roads?”
You also mentioned that the solution to the existing problem in Russian astronautics is international cooperation. Whom should we cooperate with and what areas in?
Russia like the USA can become humankind’s guide to space. I didn’t mean with the help of international cooperation we will catch up with the Americans — we will unlikely catch up with them. But we can at least increase the financing of our space sector and give this sector a stimulus. Development of new rockets, new space stations — all this could be done for international cooperation.
Generally speaking Russia still has huge possibilities in space. Interplanetary manned flights are the only thing that separates us. As for the rest, Russia can do everything China or America do. All other countries can’t do it, but some of them have their interests in space, for instance, Australia, the UAE, New Zealand.
New Zealand is a space power, are many in Russia ready to understand it? It has its own cosmodrome, its own rocket. Though it is made with the USA’s money, and the company is called Rocket Lab USA, it is launched in New Zealand, which means it is their astronautics. Or the UAE, they have already launched a camera on a Chinese satellite that took a photo of the Moon. In other words, Arabs have photographed the Moon, but Russia hasn’t yet.
By the way, there was a project you initiated — to fly, photograph the Moon and find out if the Americans were there or not. What’s about it?
Yes, we decided that we couldn’t find financing to simply “fly and photograph”. Neither can count on state support. This is why we decided it is necessary to run a business, create a service to launch a payload to the interplanetary orbit. The platform we created for this task — to fly to the Moon and photograph it — can have other, research or commercial loads and be launched with different purposes.
Russia can send other countries’ astronauts to space — it is already doing this, in fact, but this can expand. We can offer these services not only to Americans but worldwide
This is an example of cooperation. We aren’t going to ask for many millions for this with the Russian Academy of Sciences because our scientists already don’t have much money, but there are other academies of sciences. We can use a Russian satellite on the Russian rocket, put a payload on it — the same camera — from another country, they will pay us for it, and we will be the means of delivery. Yes, it is “carriers” so to speak, but it is a service. And with Russia’s possibilities, we can do it.
And it is only one of the possibilities. Russia can send other countries’ astronauts to space — it is already doing this, in fact, but this can expand. We can offer these services not only to Americans but worldwide. This area wasn’t long considered a priority at Roscosmos.
How much work does Roscosmos have now?
The Russian state doesn’t need as much as Roscosmos can do. Dmitry Rogozin (Editor’s Note: head of Roscosmos) talked about this — Roscosmos has 40% of government procurement. It turns out that people do nobody knows what during half of their working time. Hence the news that Roscosmos’s enterprise began making lifts with Gagarin’s voice — this was just recently. This is called conversion — the plants that don’t have space tasks repurpose to “mundane tasks”. And they can perform them, but this way we will lose our astronautics. People will remain in the plants, but we won’t go to space any more — everything is moving to this.
And here if we want to increase space orders, there is only one solution — it is necessary to offer services around the world so that the world will pay for our rockets, while Roscosmos enterprises will make equipment that will fly. This isn’t our road, but from a perspective of an engineer who assembles rockets, he doesn’t care, most importantly, we will have competencies in creating rockets. We will keep the industry that was created in the Soviet Union.
And here if we want to increase space orders, there is only one solution — it is necessary to offer services around the world so that the world will pay for our rockets, while Roscosmos enterprises will make equipment that will fly
As a person who would like that space I read about as a child to live and develop I think that it is what we need to develop. Rogozin has repeatedly said that we don’t need any clients, we are already fine. But this isn’t completely true: fine, but we start making lifts, and it isn’t a lift to the Moon. The plants are doing fine, but astronautics isn’t doing fine.
I want to deliver this thought: I need to admit that not all is fine in astronautics, and to make it better, we need to try to turn our services around to the world and say: “World, if you wanted to go to space, there is a chance here, go!”