Will the SpaceX launch fire up US-Russian space travel competition? | In Depth | DW | 30.05.2020
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In Depth

Will the SpaceX launch fire up US-Russian space travel competition?

The US is resuming crewed space travel with American spacecraft after nearly a decade of relying on Russian aid to reach the ISS. The era of space cooperation between Moscow and Washington may be reaching its end.

Over the past nine years, only Russia was able to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). However, this era of Russian dominance came to an end on Saturday when the American rocket Falcon 9 launched astronauts onboard the Crew Dragon space capsule into outer space. A launch that was scheduled to take place a few days earlier had to be aborted due to unfavorable weather conditions (photo above).

The US aeronautics and space agency NASA has not developed any spacecraft of its own since the last space shuttle flight, in July 2011. In principle, this approach hasn't changed, as the Crew Dragon spacecraft was produced by SpaceX, the private company founded by Tesla chief Elon Musk. The company retains ownership of the spacecraft.

Aerospace giant Boeing also wants to undertake unmanned spaceflight before the end of the year, using its Starliner spacecraft. It aims for manned flights in 2021.

These developments do more than mark the return of the US into the elite club of nations that can transport people into outer space, which currently includes Russia and China; if the US also succeeds in developing two different spacecraft able to perform such a feat, it would take the lead in an unofficial race, and Russia would have to face a new competitor.

Reliable launches, increased ticket prices

Yet Russia and the US have not exclusively seen one another as space rivals. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, cooperation between the two nations on crewed space flights boomed. US space shuttles flew to the Russian space station Mir, and their crews also included Russian cosmonauts.

After the turn of the millennium, Russian spacecraft with US astronauts onboard regularly took off from the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan to go to the ISS. Russia only gained the monopoly on space travel following the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003, in which the American shuttle broke up minutes before it was to land in Florida, killing all seven crew members. The US consequently suspended its space flights for two years.

Even after that, Moscow had to act as space travel "taxi" for quite a while. "Russia couldn't say no," Igor Marinin, a member of the Russian space travel academy, told DW. It was impossible to keep the ISS operational without the Americans, Marinin added, also because "the Russian module could not travel through space autonomously."

The International Space Station as seen from outer space

The International Space Station (ISS)

Over the last nine years, there have been some 40 successful launches of Russian Soyuz spacecraft with US astronauts on board, four times per year on average. This had stretched the Russian industry to its limits, said Marinin.

It also hasn't always been smooth sailing between NASA and Russian space agency Roscosmos, as an incident in summer 2018 revealed. A Soyuz capsule docked to the ISS experienced a drop in pressure, and a hole was subsequently found and sealed. Roscosmos publically suggested the hole was an act of sabotage and ordered an investigation, while Russian media circulated rumors that the Russian space agency was pointing its fingers at US astronauts as the source of the leak — allegations which the Americans rejected. NASA later said it would support the Roscosmos investigation

Another very rare incident happened in October 2018 when a booster on the Soyuz rocket malfunctioned just after liftoff. An emergency system kicked in and saved the lives of the Russian cosmonaut and the American astronaut who were onboard. In Russia, the incident was viewed as proof that the technology was reliable, if outdated. "The system has proved that it's robust," said German astronaut Thomas Reiter, who had at one time traveled onboard Soyuz spacecraft.

A Soyuz capsule can carry up to three people and over time, Roscosmos has upped the price of a flight. According to US sources, a trip to the ISS and back used to be available for $21 million (€18.9 million). Recently, Roscosmos demanded $80 million (€72.1 million). Currently, the Russians and Americans have agreed to only one more flight. It will take place in autumn 2020, with a price tag of $90 million (€81.1 million).

ISS: An island of cooperation

The political chill between Moscow and Washington, triggered by Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, affected every aspect of the bilateral relationship — except the cooperation related to the ISS program. Just once, in spring 2014, the then-deputy prime minister and current head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, warned the US that astronaut transport to the ISS could be terminated.

However, that threat is a thing of the past. In a recent live video chat with the ISS crew, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised the "effictive partnership" between Russia and the US.

"There is a complete accordance with the Americans," Marinin confirmed, while adding that this was true only with respect to crewed space travel, and not with regard to commercial and military use of outer space.

Competition related to commercial missions has increased. For example, SpaceX has put Russia under considerable pressure in the area of satellite launches. In addition, both Russia and the US are advancing military technology for outer space.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley stand next to the Crew Dragon spacecraft

Astronauts Bob Behnken (l) and Doug Hurley (r) will fly on the Crew Dragon to the ISS

With the exception of manned flights, Russian space travel has long been in a weaker position than American space travel. The Russian monopoly made it possible to hide that fact, space travel expert Andrei Ionin told DW.

"The final curtain that had hidden the loss of motivation and backward technology is now being lifted," Ionin said. "The government will realize that the emperor has no clothes." The expert estimates that Russia will fall behind rather quickly, primarily in comparison to SpaceX. Ionin also hopes this new competition will force the Russian government to take advantage of existing possibilities to reform Roscosmos.

Who will occupy the US seats in Soyuz spacecraft?

In the wake of the Crew Dragon flight, the US will likely reduce its cooperation with Russia in the area of manned space travel. According to Marinin, the new US capsules offer space for twice as many passengers, and they are more modern and more comfortable than their Russian counterparts, whose construction is still based on technical solutions from the 1960s. 

But Marinin believes the Soyuz spacecraft to have one advantage that could last a few years still: their dependability, which has proved over decades.

ISS operations are guaranteed to continue until 2024. Until then, NASA will increasingly cease to depend on Russia's help to send astronauts into outer space. This would in turn open up capacities for Europeans and space tourists. Russia has already announced that it will resume the transport of private persons into outer space in 2021. Marinin also expects additional capacities will be dedicated to the development of the new Oryol ("Eagle") spaceship, whose maiden flight is scheduled for 2023.

A step backwards in space research?

Overall, the era of Moscow and Washington's close cooperation on space research seems to be coming to an end. The US intends to travel to the moon again — an aim also shared by Russia. Moscow also plans to build its own space station to replace the ISS.

Ionin warned that the biggest achievement of the ISS program could be lost: the "invaluable experience of cooperation." A return to nations going it alone in outer space would be a step backwards, he said — back to the space race of the 1960s.

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