63 years ago the Soviet Union brought the first artificial satellite Sputnik into space. Almost four years later, it sent the first human into orbit, Yuri Gagarin. After that, the country was overtaken by the US space agency NASA in the space race, but even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia remained a major space power and joined the Americans in building and operating the International Space Station (ISS) for the past two decades.
Today the future of the Russian space program depends on the new space power China.
After years of promises and limited cooperation, Russia and China have begun drafting ambitious mission plans that could compete directly with those of the US and its partners and usher in a new era of space competition that could be as intense as the first.
They have teamed up for a robotic mission to form an asteroid in 2024 and are coordinating a number of lunar missions that are set to establish a permanent research base at the south pole of the moon by 2030. The first of these missions, a Russian spacecraft called the Luna, Remembrance of Die Era, is slated to be launched in October to locate ice that could provide water for future human visitors.
“China has an ambitious program, it has the resources to equip it, and it has a plan,” said Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. Russia, on the other hand, “needs a partner”.
The emerging new partnership reflects the geopolitics of the world today.
China and Russia have grown ever closer together under their current leaders Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, which has eroded decades of mistrust between the countries and created a powerful, if unofficial, alliance against what they perceive to be US hegemonic behavior. Space has become a natural extension of the growing relationship between the two countries, given the increasingly fragile relationship with the United States.
Russian officials have already signaled that they can exit the International Space Station if the current agreement with their partners ends in 2024. The launch of the manned SpaceX capsule last year ended Russia’s unique role in transporting American astronauts to the station.
Russia gave several reasons, but politics seems to be a factor. Last week, Russia’s space agency director Dmitry Rogozin said his country would give way if the US maintained sanctions that prevented the Russian space program from working together even in tense times, but those tensions reached a point where all bets were wrong, ” said Joan Johnson-Freese, professor of national security at the US Naval War College.
Despite all of its experience in space, Russia is struggling to maintain a program that combats obsolescence and corruption and has no resources in Russia’s stagnant economy.
However, China, a relatively newcomer to space exploration, has risen to the highest ranks of space powers with missions that Russia and the Soviet Union have failed to complete before, including landing and sending a robotic probe to Mars last month.
This spring, China launched the first modules of a new orbital space station and this Wednesday (16) can send the first three astronauts to occupy it. The decommissioning of the ISS – originally slated for 2024 although the deadline is to be extended – could soon leave China with the only inhabited outpost in orbit.
China sent its first astronauts into space in 2003, but was never invited to the International Space Station. Laws passed by the US Congress in 2011 virtually prohibit NASA from collaborating with the Chinese space agency or an affiliate because of the danger of espionage.
The country says it made a virtue of necessity and developed its own space skills, although it also bought equipment from the Russians to help build two temporary space stations in 2011 and 2016. The third is called Tiangong or “Heavenly Palace”. is expected to be completed after eleven launches next year and orbiting the earth for at least ten years.
“The ongoing foreign blockade has forced our independent innovation,” Yang Hong, one of Tiangong’s designers, told Chinese state television last month. “We have to have our own. We can’t always stand behind others.”
China has promised to open the station to foreign astronauts and experiments, even though it is, by definition, a Chinese-dominated company.
“We are determined to make our space station a common platform for scientific and technological research for the benefit of all peoples of the world,” said Hao Chun, director of the China Manned Space Agency, in an interview with Chinese government media organizations.
Russia and China have worked together before. The first Chinese astronauts, called “Taikonauts”, flew in Russian spacesuits. China later made its own costumes based on Russian patterns, which can also be seen on some Chinese missiles. The first failed Chinese attempt to send an orbiter to Mars was hitchhiking on a Russian mission to one of the Martian moons Phobos.
Working with China now gives Russia the chance to embark on an ambitious science tour that it couldn’t do on its own in the post-Soviet era while grappling with shrinking budgets and corruption.
A month after announcing joint work at the lunar station, the two countries announced in April that they would team up for a robotic mission on an asteroid called Kamo’oalewa in 2024.
“It’s a natural partnership,” said Gregory Kulacki, China project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The Russians have a lot of experience. The Chinese have the means to finance them.”
The new agreement on the lunar outpost suggests deeper participation, with Russia now capitalizing on ambitious Chinese plans to build a base for future space exploration and natural resource extraction.
For Russia, this enabled a rebirth of the Soviet Union’s lunar exploration project, including a robotics program called Luna, which began in the 1950s.
According to a presentation by Pei Zhaoyu, deputy director of the China Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center, at a conference in Nanjing last April, the next three Russian Luna missions will be integrated into the Chinese Chang’e space probe series “Name of a Moon” Goddess in Chinese mythology.
The first of the Russian missions is scheduled for October, although the Russian space program has had long delays in the past.
Ultimately, China hopes the station will demonstrate the ability to develop water, mineral and energy resources that enable astronauts to survive in the short term and serve as the basis for deeper space exploration.
NASA has its own plans to bring astronauts back to the moon – and one day send them to Mars – and has recruited partners under an agreement that governs space activities, including operations, experiments and natural resource extraction.
China is not specifically ruled out, but it appears that given US restrictions on space cooperation and its own determination to build its own program, it will not sign. It also seems unlikely that Russia will sign it due to its leaning towards China.
As Johnson-Freese of the US Naval War College put it, “China is holding Russia in the space race far more than the Russian economy would allow.”
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves