Putin Vows Russian Space Program Will Continue Unabated Despite Sanctions

Putin Vows Russian Space Program Will Continue Unabated Despite Sanctions

As Russia celebrated Cosmonautics Day, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed that sanctions imposed by other countries because of his invasion of Ukraine will not deter progress with the country’s space program. Speaking at Russia’s newest launch site, Vostochny, he singled out the Luna-25 mission and development of a new crewed spacecraft and space nuclear technologies as examples of future activities.

Today is the 61st anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human in space. He made one orbit of the Earth on April 12, 1961, which Russia commemorates as Cosmonautics Day each year.

The anniversary also has taken on a celebratory tone around the world in recent years with “Yuri’s Night” events on or around the date. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has taken the joy out of it this year, but space enthusiasts like Russia’s Katya Pavlushchenko took to Twitter to share a more positive outlook.

For his part, Putin used the occasion to visit Vostochny with Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko. According to Russia’s state news agency TASS, Putin invited Belarus to paticipate in building Vostochny, which is still under construction, and the nearby city of Tsiolkovsky. Vostochny means East, a reference to its location in Russia’s far east. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky is considered the father of Russian rocketry.

Vostochny has been under development for more than a decade. The decision to build a new launch site was due in large part to Kazakhstan gaining its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the two major Russian launch sites, Baikonur, is in Kazakhstan. Russia now leases it, but the goal is for Vostochny, on Russian territory, to eventually replace it. Russia’s other major launch site is Plesetsk near the Arctic Circle.

With the exception of the International Space Station, the United States, Europe, other countries and western companies have suspended their space cooperation with Russia. Most notably, the European Space Agency will not participate in the ExoMars mission to send a rover to Mars, which was scheduled for launch later this year.  Russia built the lander and ESA built the rover. Russia invaded Ukraine just before the rover was to be shipped to Baikonur for integration with the rest of the spacecraft. It remains in Italy.

ESA and Russia also were cooperating on the Luna-25 mission, Russia’s first robotic probe to the Moon since 1976.

Putin specifically mentioned Luna-25 today according to TASS: “‘We will resume the lunar program. I am talking about the launch of the Luna-25 automatic robotized probe from the Vostochny spaceport.” He did not mention ESA’s role.

ESA built the Pilot-D landing camera for Luna-25. In that case, the instrument is already integrated into the spacecraft, which is in Russia’s hands, so it is not clear if ESA can do anything about it. On March 17, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said ESA is developing a list of all its activities and projects with Russia, including Luna-25, and will go through it “one by one” to determine the path forward.

Putin also said Russia would continue work on creating its next generation transportation spacecraft, Oryol (Eagle), and space nuclear technologies. TASS quoted him as saying Russia has “a perfectly clear advantage” in that area.

Oryol is intended to replace Soyuz not only for taking astronauts to Earth orbit, but the Moon. Russian officials have said in the past that Oryol will make an uncrewed flight around the Moon in 2028 and a crewed flight in 2029.

Russia has never sent people beyond low Earth orbit, although it launched five Zond missions using modified Soyuz spacecraft around the Moon from 1968-1970. No humans were aboard, but turtles and other biological specimens were. Russia has been planning to develop a successor to Soyuz for a long time, but instead has repeatedly upgraded it since its first flight in 1967. The current version, Soyuz MS, entered service in 2016.

What Putin was referring to with regard to space nuclear technologies is unclear, but the Soviet Union used to launch military ocean reconnaissance satellites powered by nuclear reactors. One accidentally reentered over Canada in 1978, Kosmos 954, spreading nuclear debris over a 300 mile swath. No one was injured, but the Soviets discontinued the series after two others malfunctioned in 1983 (Kosmos 1402) and 1988 (Kosmos 1900). No radioactive debris reached the surface in those cases.

Putin’s main message was that Russia will continue with its plans even though many of its partners have turned away:  “Our ancestors’ aspiration to move forward serves as a behest for us. We will necessarily implement all mapped-out plans consistently and persistently, despite any difficulties and some attempts from outside to impede us in this movement.”

The Russian government will have to significantly increase the amount of money it allocates to space to achieve those aspirations, however. Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos has been cash-strapped for many years and relied on money from the U.S. government, ESA, the European Union, and U.S. and other companies that bought rocket engines or commercial launch services on Russian rockets to supplement its own finances.

All of that appears to have ended now.

The termination of the contract between the U.S. government and Russia to launch NASA astronauts to the ISS on Soyuz spacecraft is unrelated to the Ukraine war, but brought in $90 million per seat for Roscosmos.

The U.S. launch services company United Launch Alliance was required by Congress to stop using Russian RD-180 engines for launching national security payloads on the Atlas V rocket after Russia’s initial invasion in 2014 when it annexed Crimea. Northrop Grumman uses Russian RD-181 engines for its Antares rocket, which is used for non-military launches of cargo spacecraft to the ISS.

Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin said on March 3 that Russia will not sell any more rocket engines to U.S. companies or provide support services because of the U.S. sanctions. ULA says it already has all the RD-180s it needs in storage at its Decatur, AL facility and although they had agreements with Russia for technical support and spares, they can manage without them. Northrop Grumman has enough RD-181s for two more Antares launches and is evaluating options thereafter.

ESA and the EU use Russian Soyuz rockets to launch a variety of satellites through the Russian-Arianespace Starsem joint venture. They are now looking for alternatives. OneWeb, a communications satellite company majority-owned by the U.K. government and India’s Bharti Global, suspended all its launches with Russia.

The situation is a complication for its customers, but for Roscosmos itself, the loss of revenue is certain to stymie its plans unless Putin makes up the difference, which will be difficult with the financial sanctions in place. He painted a rosy picture nonetheless.

“Each one of us is experiencing extraordinary feelings today: it’s genuine pride for generations that have accomplished this epic technological breakthrough and simultaneously faith in the future, in our power and in our progressive development. Confidence in that we will definitely achieve the goals that we have set. I am certain that this will be the case,” Putin said.

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