There are lots of questions surrounding the first launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, and one of the biggest was how the Russians would react. They’ve held considerable sway in the International Space Station collaboration by controlling access to the orbiting laboratory since the 2011 retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle. The Russian’s response so far has been one of throwing small bits of shade here and there but trying not to be too obvious about it.
When SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft docked with the International Space Station, the Russian space corporation sequestered cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko in the Russian segment of the station. This was, Roscosmos said, so that Kononenko could take emergency action in case the Dragon became uncontrollable and crashed into the space station.
Upon docking successfully, Roscosmos tweeted in a Russian language congratulation to NASA, but underscored the fact “that flight safety must be above reproach.” An hour later it published a rare tweet in English, sending “its sincere compliments to the colleagues from NASA,” but without the emphasis on vehicle safety. Neither tweet mentioned SpaceX. (Later, Roscosmos said NASA ordered the ship and, therefore, deserved the congratulations.)
The Russian space corporation tweeted again on Monday, sharing pictures of Kononenko, NASA’s Anne McClain, and Canadian David Saint-Jacques in their protective masks before entering the Dragon. (This was a safety precaution with the new vehicle visiting.) It wanted readers to know that the mission had made history another way. “For the first time in the history of the station, the crew worked in Russian-made IPK gas masks,” the tweet stated.
The Russian sources told Sputnik and other media on Tuesday, about an unusual smell on the station and that “a high concentration” of isopropyl alcohol was found to be circulating in the air on board the International Space Station following Dragon’s arrival. In reality, the concentrations were quite low and disappeared after astronauts on the station used normal procedures to cycle the air.
What do you think is going on here with this passive-aggressive reaction? The only person who could probably know is Vadim Lukashevich, a Russian-based space expert. He was fired from an aerospace think tank at Skolkovo in 2015 after writing articles opposing the transformation of Roscosmos from a government agency into a state corporation. On Monday, he gave an interview to Russian television station Moscow 24, which was published on YouTube and translated for Ars by Robinson Mitchell.
In that interview, Lukashevich says there are good reasons for the Russians to feel threatened. (In the quote below, he references Roscosmos leader Dmitry Rogozin, who was sanctioned by the US government in 2014 and thereafter suggested NASA should use a trampoline to get to space.)
This particular launch, even if it was ordered by NASA, this private company SpaceX has made Roscosmos null and void. They have shown Roscosmos who’s who. Everyone remembers Rogozin’s remarks about trampolines and such, so in fact this isn’t just resentment, it is a constant major headache for Roscosmos. In the first place, the congratulations message was late. Second, Roscosmos sent out two congratulation tweets, one in English, and another completely different text in Russian. So of course, this is a sign of resentment, it is the reaction of an unreliable leader who is lagging behind, so really it was strange they (Roscosmos) reacted at all. Bear in mind Roscosmos in fact never gave their approval for the docking. They voiced a number of technical concerns, perhaps even with some basis, but we saw that the docking was simply brilliant as it took place. So, yes, this was a reaction of someone left behind.
Later, Lukashevich was asked how the Dragon spacecraft compared to the Russian Soyuz, which has transported all astronauts to the station since 2011.
Look, if we compare the ships on a technological level, our Soyuz is in principle unable to compete with the SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. This is because our Soyuz was ideologically built in the 1960s by Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. Even having undergone a lot of modification, it is still flying to this day. It is reliable and its bugs have all been worked out. But it has become an unreliable ship in principle. Even when the Chinese built their ship, “Heavenly Vessel” (Shenzhou)—a pretty name—on the basis of our Soyuz, they rebuilt the entire article. In the first place, [the Chinese ship] is bigger. Secondly, their habitation module is a completely independent vehicle, able to undock and fly for up to a month on its own. As to the re-entry module, theirs is larger, more reliable, and less crowded than ours and so forth.
But Elon Musk has built the ship of the future. It’s a seven-place spacecraft. It is re-usable. It is new technology. Accordingly, it beats Soyuz according to every parameter, by every technological indicator. It only needs to prove its usefulness for manned space launches, and then in July it will make its first manned flight. Musk will not only take away from Roscosmos… Transporting foreign astronauts [on Soyuz] to the ISS is ending. Each year we (Russia) received about $400 million, and now that will end. We will be forced by this, most likely, to carry tourists, but Musk will be able to offer lower prices to tourists as well, and he has a ship with seven seats. So what are we even talking about?
Finally, Lukashevich addressed the fact that Russia must now fill that big budget hole.
I would like to point out something else interesting—from one point of view this is a good thing, because we were carrying astronauts, we were getting basically for free $400 million a year at about $90 million per seat for each foreign astronaut. That is more than the entire cost of the rocket and the ship and launch operations taken together. This means as long as we had at least one foreign astronaut on board, we were launching for free. For us this wasn’t just a freebie—it was a narcotic. It allowed us to do absolutely nothing and still earn money. And now, this narcotic is going to be cut off, and we will be forced to do something. Either we will pass into history along with all of our space achievements, like Portugal, with its discovery of America and the voyages of Magellan and so forth, or we will have to seriously do something.
We are going to have to get down off of the needle: if our economy is sitting on an oil-gas needle [referring to Russia’s primary economic dependence on oil and gas exports] then our space program has also “sat upon a needle” and become dependent on this American money. So now we must demonstrate what we are really made of. Are we really worthy of the glory of Gagarin?
Absolutely, this is not the kind of thing one expects to hear too often from Russia about its venerable space program, but this kind of criticism is not unique. Former cosmonaut Valery Ryumin recently said the leaders of Roscosmos are “blowing more smoke than doing anything substantive.” And another space editor said the Russian space program was on the cusp of entering the Dark Ages.
Lukashevich raises a good question at the end of his interview. Until now, Russia has largely either blamed others for its problems in space or overlooked them. Is Russia going to face up to its issues or continue to bluster and entirely squander its remarkable, six-decade legacy of pioneering spaceflight?