Russia Is Slowly Declining As a Space Superpower
The first country to launch a satellite is losing its space advantage to leakers, competitors like SpaceX, and most importantly to China.
July was a tough month for the Russian space program. First came the arrest of scientist Viktor Kudryavtsev for allegedly leaking information on the development of hypersonic missiles to a member of NATO. Shortly thereafter, a second scientist was arrested on similar charges of leaking technology information, this time allegedly to Vietnam. (That may just be the start; the Federal Security Service, or FSB, is reportedly investigating a dozen more people in Kudryavtsev’s office.) And on July 26, Russia’s space agency, Roskosmos, announced the cancellation of the 2022 test launch of the new Federation passenger module.
But the troubles of Russia’s space efforts go much farther back. For example, wrote Russian news outlet Lenta.ru, “The damage from [the alleged leaking] is unlikely to be stronger than the transfer to China of the technology of manned space exploration.”
Complaints about Chinese acquisition of Russian rocket technology have become a common refrain in Russian state media. (The Kremlin exercises heavy influence over Lenta.ru’s editorial decision-making, like many of the country’s media outlets.) China is now close to a working copy of the Soviet-designed yet still effective RD-180 rocket engine, due to what Russia has painted as a multi-decade ripoff of its technology. (Recall that the RD-180 remains hugely important to current U.S. space efforts, much to the chagrin of Congress.) Yet the two nations recently signed a cooperation agreement notwithstanding, and Russia is now reportedly considering Chinese requests to review its developing RD-180 analogues and to collaborate on future engines.
Michael Koffman, senior research scientist at CNA Corp., said China appears to have stolen mostly older technology.
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“Current concerns on Chinese IP theft should be placed in the context of that 1990s history, that much of Chinese reverse engineering was really done with access to technologies from other republics, and China's ability to piece together the different parts of the puzzle. Today that's magnitudes harder, as current technologies are solely developed in Russia, held fairly tightly as industrial or state secrets, and cannot be accessed via a roundabout approach,” Koffman said. “Part of their approach involved targeting technologies where blueprints, design, prototypes, and know how was also available in Ukraine or other former Soviet republics involved in the project.”
China’s purported copying, espionage, and information-gathering tactics from the 1990s onward has eroded Russia’s former space dominance, says Lenta.ru. “The Chinese side tried in every possible way to learn as much as possible about the technologies associated with manned space flight. Therefore, no one was surprised that the first launched (in unmanned mode) Shenzhou was practically a copy of the ‘Union.’”
The rise of smallish companies with big rockets is another challenge, Koffman said.
“Today Russia is still competitive when it comes to space lift, but has big issues given the advancements made by SpaceX. However, much of the profit in the space market from what I understand, and the way it is discussed by Russian industry leadership, is not in space lift at all, but in additive assembly and satellites,” said Koffman. “As such, SpaceX is de facto eating away, and will likely displace Russia, from a segment of the market that is not especially profitable and much of the value lies elsewhere,” he said.
Beyond China’s authorized purchase of technology, Lenta.ru cites the 2017 arrest of scientist Vladimir Lapygin for allegedly leaking information to China as another possible factor for China’s technological development.
“Russian faces a difficult choice today on many technologies, understanding that the risk of selling them to China is offset but the realization that their counterpart is rapidly approaching a level of sophistication whereby they will in short order have comparable domestically produced variants. As such, it's a case of ‘sell now or sell never’,” Koffman said.
The problems for Russian space flight grew even more obvious on July 18 when Roskosmos told Russian state outlet RIA Novosti that the Federation spacecraft will not be part of the first launch of the new Soyuz-5 rocket.
“The first launch of the Soyuz-5 launch vehicle will in fact not be carried out with the manned transport ship of the new generation Federation.The question concerning the payload for the first launch of Soyuz-5 is still open. It is possible that this will be a useful commercial load,” Roskosmos said.
Dmitry Rogozin, the director general of Roskosmos, called on July 18 for all hands on deck to complete the Federation in time, but reports had long foretold its delay. Still, a commercial payload could help defray the mounting costs of the Soyuz-5 program, which is on track to spend double its original budget.
If state media is any guide, Rogozin may be in trouble. A July 26 article in Lenta.ru did not shy away from blaming him for Roskosmos’ decline. “There is no doubt that such actions of the official have caused and continue to cause direct financial damage to the country's budget,” it said.
Technology Editor Patrick Tucker contributed to this report.