‘It is clear what a bad workman always blames, I specifically address Roscosmos’
Why Russia loses the race on the Moon and Mars
One of the key world events took place last year in astronautics. The American Mars rover Perseverance successfully landed on the Red Planet’s surface on 19 February night and already sent the first photos by the morning. Scientists assume that there was once life in one of the craters of the planet, and the Mars rover is due to find (or not) evidence of it. What about us? In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, space expert, Candidate for Technical Sciences Vadim Lukashevich explained the chances of Russia’s Mars mission and why our country can already hardly be considered an important competitor in the race to the Moon.
“America’s success is Russia’s shame”
Mr Lukashevich, is the landing of the American Mars rover a world success or US success? We do know that many countries are eager to conquer Mars.
First of all, it is the success of humankind, while America is the leader of humankind, its vanguard in outer space. Humankind, of course, can be glad about such successes, but I think America’s success is Russia’s shame. Why? Once we competed with Americans in Mars exploration almost as equals, and moreover, precisely our country made a smooth landing on Mars, though it wasn’t very successful. We also competed with Americans in the race for Venus, and our successes there were much more impressive than those of America. Now we have screwed it up.
A very interesting programme on Moon and Mars rovers was created and implemented once in Russia, let’s remember Mars 96 station that had a heavy Mars rover, four penetrators that were supposed to pierce its surface in different parts of Mars and provide the Earth with various materials. But now all this rests at the bottom of the world ocean because they didn’t manage to put this equipment even into orbit.
Then there was a very interesting programme Phobos-Grunt, it was quite an innovative mission, but the equipment didn’t fly further near-Earth orbit. And it means that Russia hasn’t managed to launch anything beyond near-Earth orbit since December 1991 at all. Now the quite a heavy US rover has landed on Mars. A spacecraft from the Arab Emirates had been launched previously. But Chinese also reached the orbit of the Red Planet, they will try to launch their own Mars rover by summer, while Chinese Moon rovers have been operating for years. And how does Russia look amid this? At the moment, we are just saying that we will start our Moon programme in 2021. In reply to the landing of the American Mars rover, the Kremlin says one shouldn’t forget the ambitious Russian programme. But what ambitions are we talking about? It is like seeing your neighbour on the top 10 by Forbes, buying himself a Ferrari, who then sails his yacht, while you just walk and can only kick a passing cat. What ambitious? It is ridiculous...
“Rogozin had better say nothing at all at times”
But Rogozin talked about plans for a mission of ExoMars Mars rover last year. However, coronavirus allegedly impeded it, and everything was put off into 2022. Are these plans with the Russian-European Mars rover serious in general?
But coronavirus didn’t impede the Arabs, Chinese and Americans! Americans admit that coronavirus made the mission to Mars tougher — they had been developing software for this mission working remotely. But they did develop it! And it allowed their rover to make a very difficult landing in motion, on the approach trajectory. While coronavirus somehow impeded us... It is clear what a bad workman always blames, and I always specifically address Roscosmos. You know, when people do something, they do it, but when they can’t do it, plenty of problems arises.
Putin promised in early 2018 that Russia would go to Mars in 2019...
But — it is unclear what was meant because there wasn’t an astronomical observation period for such a flight in 2019. But in 2020, three spacecraft went to Mars in 2020, but the Russian one wasn’t among them, this is why Rogozin had better say nothing at all at times.
You know, we went into business with Europeans for the ExoMars project, but Europe doesn’t have experience of Mars missions. There was an attempt of landing on Mars, but it turned out to be unsuccessful, and they didn’t repeat it anymore. They found serious problems with both the parachute system and almost all the systems of the spacecraft. And now it is ExoMars’s problems too. While Americans performed a quick parachute landing, which is harder in the atmosphere of Mars. And they have fulfilled this idea for the second time! Whereas we have coronavirus.
Rogozin’s words about coronavirus as a problem for our mission to Mars a year ago could be understood, but it would be simply unserious to hear this now.
They found serious problems with both the parachute system and almost all the systems of the spacecraft. And now it is ExoMars’s problems too
“Chinese are very canny people”
How do you assess the prospects of joint Chinese-Russian cooperation in the exploration of planets? We aren’t talking about Mars yet, while the plans of cooperation between Russia and China have the Moon, it seems we are going to build a Moonbase with them.
Chinese are canny people, moreover, very canny. I mean any cooperation for them is an achievement of their own goals. Now the PRC is creating its own multi-module space station, then they decided to go to the Moon. It is considered in China if a victory is won without somebody, it is very valuable. And they are right: yes, the independent road is tougher but it is more honourable. China understands that Russia is an heir of the USSR, it is a space power. And this is why they need a clean win — a win is also necessary so that nobody can reproach them that they stole something from somebody.
Yes, they cooperated with us in manned astronautics, but they did it, first of all, to gain experience, and their first manned spacecraft is, in fact, the idea of Soyuz. The spacesuits were ours, the docking units were ours, and so on. But now they have their own spacecraft for such flights that doesn’t copy the Russian Soyuz. This is why when China began outer space exploration, logically, it did it on its own.
Their Moon rover landed even on the other side of the Moon.
Their spacecraft had problems with flights to the Moon, particularly, with thermal control. But their latest Jade Rabbit rover has still been operating, while our people worked only for a few months. Moreover, Chinese implemented the project on the landing of the Moon rover on the other side of the Moon and communication with it via a Moon satellite — it is was a completely different task, and they performed it.
While Russia in general can offer nothing to China. What do we have for Mars? We have only the story with Phobos-Grunt and Mars 96, nothing else. While America doesn’t invite China because the issue of technology transition is principal there. So why does China need Russia for Mars? We don’t have any knowledge. Moreover, neither can we serve as China’s financial partner, let’s say, they have ideas, while we have money.
Why did we decide to create a mission to Mars with Europe? Because both we and they are poor. This is why in this aspect it is easier to unite our capabilities to get something. But we see what we have. The spacecraft still has technical problems with landing on Mars, while Rogozin talks about coronavirus.
Compared to China’s Jade Rabbit, our Moon 25 is nothing. This is simply called ‘we learn how to get to the Moon’, how Korolyov and Americans learnt in the early 60s
“There is simply nowhere to get people who could create new Moon rovers in Russia”
Why don’t we want to conquer the Moon on our own but count on China? Isn’t there a contradiction between this and the Kremlin’s words about the ambitious plans?
They started to talk about Russian-Chinese cooperation because nobody needs us anymore, to put it seriously. While we cannot work on our own anymore. Yes, it is planned to launch Moon 25 station that is to land on the Moon in autumn 2021. But technologically, it is an obsolete spacecraft resembling attempts of landing with India or Israel’s spacecraft. Compared to China’s Jade Rabbit, our Moon 25 is nothing. This is simply called ‘we learn how to get to the Moon’, how Korolyov and Americans learnt in the early 60s. While there aren’t simply people who could create new Moon rovers in Russia — there is nowhere to get them.
So why did Americans manage to land the Mars rover now, while Chinese have so far simply reached the Earth orbit and will bide their time? Americans have already had the third generation of Mars rovers, they know this issue inside out. To land a Mars rover, Russia needs both experience and an engineering school, while they come with time. Moreover, the US Mars rover that landed on the Red Planet last week cost $2,5 billion. While if you give Roscosmos $5 billion for a Mars rover, it simply won’t be made because ours don’t know how to make it. There aren’t people for this who would grow up with projects, mistakes, do simple and then complicated things. We have lost decades for our own new developments, while European didn’t have any developments at all. This is why we have ExoMars that didn’t go anywhere because of coronavirus...
Why are you often speaking about Mars, not the Moon race? Because it is yet early to imagine people on Mars, while people already were on the Moon.
Now the greatness of a space power is determined by outer space, not human flights to space or the Moon. It is amazing when you not only landed the spacecraft on Mars but had a bond with it. The USSR had a system of outer space communication — gigantic telescopes with 70-metre antennas. There was a whole system of work on missions — production, research. While now the USA and China possess a lot for outer space, while we have Rogozin and coronavirus.
As early as 1969, after sending Neil Armstrong to the Moon and carrying out a number of operations, Americans proved they were cooler than the USSR in this respect, they were more powerful than we were economically, financially and scientifically and technologically
“Chinese have already outperformed everybody”
Nevertheless, the race for the Moon continues to unfold. What does the Moon mean now for the USA?
What’s the situation of the USA with the Moon? As early as 1969, after sending Neil Armstrong to the Moon and carrying out a number of operations, Americans proved they were cooler than the USSR in this respect, they were more powerful than we were economically, financially and scientifically and technologically. The USSR lost the Moon race and never opposed it. But now new interest in the Moon is arising. For instance, iodine was found in near-polar craters, which means the organisation of the life-sustaining system of lunar bases considerably gets simpler, and allegedly, one has to go back there.
Americans had a very long cycle of research on the Moon with automatic spacecraft. And they took everything that could be taken from the orbit of the Moon. This is why they simply ‘go to the Moon’, create a visited station there. At the same time, there is a programme to enable humans to land there (Trump wanted to do this in 2024, and we will see what will happen in the future).
What about China?
China has its own space programme, particularly, a Moon programme, and it is very realistic. To launch a satellite first, then a man, then to create a multi-module orbital station and then stay on the Moon. And what should America do here? It used to prove it was cooler than the USSR, while now it has to prove it is better than China, and the Moon race 2.0, indeed, has begun in the world.
Now the USA thinks that if they land on the Moon, they need to immediately create a base with shift crews working there. While for China it is simply important to get to the Moon. And here is why: China is considered a regional superpower, it dominates in Southeast Asia. And now in its economic capabilities, in GDP, it is line with America. And of course, it is starting to pit its muscles against it in space too as a good and illustrative stage to show off muscles.
Of course, China will send a man to the Moon late — America will anyway do this faster, but it is already hot on Americans’ heels. I have already mentioned Mars, but Chinese have already outperformed everybody. Take the same landing of the Moon rover on the other side of the Earth’s satellite, they became first here.
There is neither economic nor scientific sense in the Moonbase. While it grants the status of superpower like possession of a nuclear weapon in the 50s and crewed astronautics in the 60s
“By 2050, a Moon base will be an attribute of the superpower”
You know, astronautics ranks all mundane countries. It is very accurately written in Russia’s concept of the Moon programme why Russia needs the Moon. It simply reads: ‘By 2050, a Moon base will be an attribute of the superpower’. And there isn’t another clearer explanation of why China, the USA or we need the Moon. Of course, there is neither economic nor scientific sense in the Moonbase. While it grants the status of superpower like possession of a nuclear weapon in the 50s and crewed astronautics in the 60s. The Moon race in general is a showcase, people pit their role on the Earth. No matter what economically developed country you are, if you don’t have a Moonbase, you turn out to be not a superpower. And we see a solution to our mundane problems in the Mars race — an aspiration to show how cooler I am than others.
Does it turn out that Roscosmos doesn’t seriously plan to conquer the Moon?
Russia has already lost this race, since we claimed we didn’t participate in it, everybody reaches the Moon’s orbit but not we. It is necessary to have a heavy missile for the Moon, while what do we have?
They either say there will be a Yenisey missile to be sent to the Moon or no, there will be none. And can’t we say after that that we foil the Moon programme? We won’t go to the Moon, it is not interesting for us! While our functionaries aren’t courage enough to say this because we are the homeland of space flights. We haven’t talked with you about if Russia can handle this Moon race.
The superheavy missile for a Moon flight needs 1,5 trillion rubles! And only the missile, without a Moon spacecraft that nobody knows if it will be made or not. Moreover, we are a country that has been imposed sanctions, a country whose economy doesn’t grow, with 20 million poor people and a deficit budget. So do we need space and the Moon programme?