Russia’s Space Program Still Relevant, Experts Agree

Russia’s Space Program Still Relevant, Experts Agree

At a panel discussion yesterday, three experts on the Russian space program agreed that despite two recent launch failures widely covered in the media and enduring budget challenges, Russia’s space program remains quite relevant today. In fact, the U.S. space program is more dependent on Russia than most realize.

Yesterday marked the 54th anniversary of the launch of the Soviet dog Laika, the first animal in orbit — or, as founder and editor Marcia Smith commented, the “first female in space.”

To update the space policy community on Russia’s space program and commemorate Laika’s launch — just one of many Soviet space “firsts” — the Secure World Foundation (SWF) hosted a panel discussion on the history and future direction of Russia’s space programs. It included Russia’s involvement in space sustainability and security discussions at the United Nations.

In her review of Russia’s civil space program, Smith stressed that the distinction between civil and military space activities “can be quite blurry” and the Soviets made no such distinction until 1985. For the purposes of the SWF panel discussion, Russia’s civil space activities were deemed to be those analogous to the activities of NASA and NOAA in the United States.

The 54-year history of Russia’s civil space activities involved many space “firsts” that are often forgotten. These include, for example, the first robotic lunar sample return in 1970, the launch of the world’s first space station, Salyut 1, in 1971, and the launch of the first space tourist to Russia’s Mir space station in 1990. That was long before Dennis Tito, often referred to as the first space tourist, travelled to the International Space Station.

Russia’s space science program, although it included some impressive space firsts such as the lunar sample return missions and spacecraft that orbited and landed on Venus, has been comparatively less successful, Smith said. She noted there have been “no transformative space science results” similar to the groundbreaking discoveries of the Hubble space telescope, other than the Venus probes. The Soviet/Russian experience with Mars probes has been one of failure and disappointment. Consequently, a lot is riding on the success of the upcoming launch of the Russia’s Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) sample return mission to the Martian moon Phobos. The probe is scheduled for launch next week and includes a Chinese satellite that will orbit Mars.

Russia’s dreams for future human spaceflight missions to Mars endure, continued Smith, but budget constraints remain a big challenge. Russia has accumulated “extensive experience” in human spaceflight activities in Earth orbit over the past five decades, however, which would be a significant attribute for any such missions. Russia is part of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group that is looking at such missions on an international basis.

Russia also maintains an “impressive launch capability” with launch sites from the Arctic to the equator, she said.

Although a lot of attention is focused on the U.S. dependence on Russia today for taking crews to and from the International Space Station, the U.S. space program also is dependent on Russia for rocket engines for the Atlas V and Taurus II launch vehicles, Smith noted. The two countries actually are interdependent with regard to space programs, Smith explained, since Russia depends on U.S. funds to augment its modest government budget, needs the U.S. as a market for its space wares, and needs a space station. It was clear after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the Russian government would not build a replacement for the Mir space station, its seventh space station; Mir was deorbited in 2001. To those in the United States lamenting U.S. dependence on Russia today, however, Smith said that “we did this to ourselves [there is] no one else to blame.”

Anatoly Zak, Journalist and Founder of, detailed the history of Soviet/Russian military space programs. Also remarking on the challenge of any true demarcation between civil and military space activities, he described how the birth of Soviet space efforts was purely military and focused on only one project: the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The goal was to “outrun the U.S. Air Force” in the development of that “ultimate weapon of the Cold War,” he said. The R-7 missile program was later converted to the launch vehicle that put Sputnik into orbit and began the Space Age. Sputnik’s story is different than most people remember, he said. It was 99% a military program, yet, as a result of a successful Soviet publicity campaign, the perception remains that it was a scientific effort. He illustrated the fact that the tiny Sputnik satellite was placed into orbit by a large ballistic missile. It was the remnants of that missile, not Sputnik itself, that people saw as they watched it orbit Earth.

Zak went on to describe major Soviet/Russian military space programs. He stressed that from the 1960s they “mirrored” U.S. military space projects. Although partly motivated by need, they were mostly driven by competition. Zak said the best way to get funding for a program in the Soviet era was “to show the Americans are doing it.”

Speaking about future plans, Zak explained that the main concern now is with the modernization of space assets and moving away from inherited inefficiencies from the Soviet system. These efforts are hampered by ongoing budgetary challenges and the perception that the government is “sawing money” – a Russian expression that means spending a lot and getting little in return.

Tiffany Chow, Program Manager at SWF, then analyzed the role played by Russia in space sustainability and security discussions at the United Nations (UN). She concluded that in the different forums — such as the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) — Russia continues to play a leading role while navigating between the other two space powers, the United States and China.

Chow found that the “most exciting and optimistic” development involves Russia’s involvement with the UN General Assembly’s First Committee. Russia sponsored a resolution there calling for establishment of a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) to consider transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs) for space. As sponsor of the resolution, Russia is considered a leading candidate to chair the group, although that decision has not yet been made, she said.

According to Chow, the GGE initiative not only speaks positively about Russia’s interest in advancing space security, but is also the clearest example of Russia balancing its relationship with the other two space powers. China and Russia introduced the Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space Treaty (PPWT) in a different UN body, the Conference on Disarmament. The United States objects to the draft treaty. Russia has agreed not to bring up discussion of the PPWT at the GGE, which Chow believes is a nod of respect to U.S. concerns and shows a commitment to not undermine chances of the GGE succeeding. Finally, Chow said that the interplay between China and Russia could prove positive for international space security in another way. By acting as a broker, Russia could help China transition into a more responsible space player on space sustainability issues.

Interestingly, debates in Russia surrounding the use of funds for space are similar to those in the United States. Responding to a question about public support for space in Russia, Zak explained that the Russian public is mostly proud, but also cynical about the space program with many questioning whether funds devoted to space ought to be devoted to other, more pressing needs. Nevertheless, Zak said that he was surprised when Roscosmos director Vladimir Popovkin recently suggested that he would shift priorities away from human spaceflight. Zak said human spaceflight is considered a “national treasure” in Russia and it would be “political suicide” for anyone who decided to cancel it.

SWF plans to post an audio recording and the Powerpoint presentations from the panel discussion on its website. Smith’s slides also are available here at

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