On November 7, the chief designer for Russia’s manned space systems, Vladimir Solovyov, proclaimed that the planned Russian Orbital Station (ROS) “will have a service life of 50 years” (TASS, November 7). The failure of the Luna-25 mission to the Moon and limited finances have raised questions on Russia’s ability to meet such lofty goals for its space program (see EDM, August 14). ROS Chief Designer Vladimir Kozhevnikov, nevertheless, gave assurances that the first modules will be ready to launch in 2028, as originally planned. The Kremlin will go to great lengths to maintain its manned space program. Russia’s aspirations in space play an important political and even ideological role for Moscow: they help maintain the veneer of the country’s great-power status, allow Russia to compete with the West, and demonstrate to Russian society a heritage of technological savvy under the Vladimir Putin regime.
In the mid-2010s, Russia began to develop a more comprehensive strategy for its manned space program for the period after the planned deorbiting of the International Space Station (ISS). Two primary objectives were formulated as part of that approach. First, Russia was going to complete its ISS segment and then undock three of its newest modules, the “Nauka” (“Science”) Module, “Prichal” (“Pier”) Node Module, and NEM Science and Power Module, before the space station deorbits (Space News, February 25, 2015). Moscow had planned to use these modules as the foundation for a new Russian orbital station that would compete with the commercial orbital stations planned to be developed by the United States. Second, Russia was going to continue cooperating with its ISS partners and participate in the US project of the manned “Gateway” station orbiting the Moon (Russianspaceweb.com, December 12, 2017).
This strategy collapsed in the early 2020s. Russia has still not produced the NEM module nor completed its segment of the ISS. Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine has destroyed the opportunity for Russian participation in “Gateway” (Space.com, March 7). The Kremlin has decided to independently construct its own national orbital station from scratch, with the orbiting of the first modules scheduled to take place sometime between 2028 and 2030. Moscow’s dubious financial planning, challenges in research and design, and the overall decrepit state of the Russian space industry will likely prevent the station from being realized along that timeline, if not render it entirely impossible. All this forces Russia to search for foreign donors among its fellow BRICS members and African countries (see EDM, July 7). Yet, even if some donors come forward, that by itself will not allow Russia to compensate for its fundamental weaknesses in technical capabilities. As a result, these weaknesses undergird a major political vulnerability for Russia, both domestic and foreign, as it continues the war against Ukraine.
Roscosmos officially needs 350 billion rubles (about $4 billion) by 2030 to complete the ROS. This will go to completing the NEM module, which needs to be redesigned; new node and docking modules; and a module fitted with scientific research equipment. If the station is not completed until 2035, costs are estimated to rise to 600 billion rubles (almost $7 billion). Roscosmos also needs several new ground-based communication stations in the Arctic to upgrade its satellite communication systems. For comparison, the current cost for maintaining the Russian segment of the ISS is 35 billion rubles (about $500 million) (TASS, February 13; Interfax-AVN, April 10; TASS, October 27).
The Kremlin’s budgetary troubles cast doubts on the viability of the ROS. The financial planning for the “Russian Space Activity” program for 2024–2026 compared with the previous decade hardly gives Russia the necessary means to complete such an intensive project (Minfin.gov.ru, accessed November 8; Sozd.duma.gov.ru, accessed November 9):
Table 1. Planned and Actual Expenditures of ‘Russian Space Activity’ State Program (2013–2026)
|Planned (Billions of Rubles)||Actual (Billions of Rubles)||Planned (Billions of US Dollars)||Actual (Billions of US Dollars)|
Looking at actual and planned spending within the federal space program, which only covers manned spaceflights, a similarly dire situation becomes apparent (Fcp.economy.gov.ru; Sozd.duma.gov.ru, accessed November 9):
Table 2: Actual (2013–2021) and Planned (2022–2026) Expenditures in Russia’s Federal Space Program
|Billions of Rubles||Billions of US Dollars|
The drop in expenditures around 2021 means the Russian space program will have to play catch-up over the next few years to reach a similar spending level. The redesign and production of the NEM module will have to start in 2024, as the spending in previous years was not sufficient to complete the project. The research and design for the ROS is far from being completed as well. The Angara-5 launch vehicle, moreover, needs to be upgraded to handle sending the NEM and future modules into orbit.
Russia has still not produced new manned spacecraft to replace the Soviet-era Soyuz. Today, the Soyuz itself can hardly be used for operations on the ROS due to some of the planned station’s technical specifications (TASS, October 27). Even if Moscow is able to manage all the research and design as well as production challenges, it will need to either increase funding for the federal space program or focus all available resources within the space program solely on ROS while canceling other projects.
Russia’s technological, industrial, and financial weaknesses will likely prevent the ROS from being completely realized. Moscow has shown that it does not have the capacity to continue its war against Ukraine and the collective West and develop its own multi-module orbital station simultaneously. Extending space cooperation with China, other BRICS members, and African countries does not hold much promise and would be difficult to sustain over the long term (Lenta.ru, July 24; Kremlin.ru, November 8). As a result, Russia’s space program is becoming ever-more fragile, adding to the long-term political and economic costs of the war in Ukraine.