NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is visiting Russia and Kazakhstan this week in advance of an ISS crew launch on Thursday. But beyond and taking in a Baikonur rocket show, the new NASA boss could have a difficult trip, one that includes a difficult conversation with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Rogozin.
For starters, Bridenstine must meet Rogozin in Moscow (as opposed to, say, the sidelines of the International Space Congress last week) because U.S.-led sanctions don't allow Rogozin much room for travel outside Russia. If that's not weird enough as a backdrop, then remember that in August the ISS crew discovered its lifeboat Soyuz spacecraft had been leaking air through a small hole—which, according to Russian investigators, could be a result of sabotage by American astronauts. NASA has officially denied these allegations.
Needless to say, things could get awkward. And yet all the drama is in some ways a sideshow, masking Russia's falling star when it comes to all things space. Its commercial launch business, hopes for planetary exploration, and other domestic programs are in trouble.
Russia's Falling Star
On the frontier of human spaceflight, the Russian part of the ISS remains unfinished for nearly two decades. And while all other partners in the ISS project are now actively working on the next step after ISS–the habitable outpost in the lunar orbit, conceived as a gateway into deep space including asteroids and Mars—Russia has taken a minor role.
Although Russia formally announced its decision to join the gateway project last year, so far the Russian role in it has been limited to the supply of the very last and smallest module and even that has not been set in stone. Rogozin publicly challenged the organizational chart of the gateway project, where NASA assumed the leading role. Given NASA’s lion’s share of investment into the gateway, all partners but Roscosmos accepted U.S.'s leadership.
“…The mutually respectful cooperation, which had formed in the ISS, has to be transferred to future programs,” Rogozin was quoted as saying by the official TASS news agency on October 4. “We prefer to have an uncertain position (in the Gateway), because we would like to determine real intentions of the partners. And when this oil painting becomes clear then we will put all the dots over Is,” Rogozin said.
A Very Important Meeting
Does Russia have any ground to demand a major rewrite of the rules, especially given the current political climate between the two countries, the Kremlin’s shaky finances, and the ongoing blunders at Roscosmos? Maybe not, but on the eve of the meeting with Bridenstine, Rogozin went on a media blitz anyway, warning NASA about perils of going to the Moon without Russia.
“(Our) American partners, even after testing their crew vehicles, will come to a realization that going to the lunar orbit independently, let alone doing lunar landings, will be impossible without the second [Russian] transport system,” Rogozin said.
At the same time, Rogozin advertised Russia’s potential prowess in the upcoming exploration of the Moon. “As of today, the Russian Federation posses so far the only (piloted) transport system. We have launch vehicles and the piloted spacecraft. From six to seven years from now, we will be able to provide a permanently operational transport system to reach the Moon and work in lunar orbit, relying on the Angara-5 rocket and using the existing piloted spacecraft,” Rogozin said.
Sources within Roscosmos tell Seniorhelpline that over the past few months, Russian specialists have worked on a new lunar exploration concept, making Rogozin feel bullish about the future. The idea is to build a small Russian outpost in the lunar orbit out of two yet-to-be launched Russian modules of the ISS, and to do it as early as 2024.
To dispatch crews to lunar orbit, Russians hoped to use the good old Soyuz spacecraft, while its cargo version, known as Progress, could support human expeditions with fuel and supplies. However, after seeing a long list of necessary upgrades to customize the Soyuz for lunar flights, Roscosmos officials are now taking another look at building the Russian equivalent of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, known as Federatsiya, industry sources said.
Unfortunately, the Federatsiya project had stalled for years due to lack of funds and fell far behind the Orion. It will probably take a decade at least to bring the new ship to the launch pad and certify it for carrying a crew, so the proclaimed 2024 deadline looks like a strong case of wishful thinking.
Another Big "Maybe"
Rogozin’s reliance on the Angara-5 rocket, as a basis of the program, is also not without a big caveat. The “new” Russian rocket flew only once almost half a decade ago and its production line in Siberia was plagued with years-long delays and quality control problems, though Russian officials say all the issues will soon be resolved.
Only last week, Roscosmos finally announced a long-delayed contract to build a single launch pad for the Angara at Russia’s Vostochny spaceport, which could eventually support the lunar program. Roscosmos promises to complete the pad by 2023.
At least two Angara rockets will be required for each flight of the Federatsiya spacecraft to the lunar orbit. If a cargo mission needs to accompany the crew, another pair of launches will be needed. Want a new module or a lunar lander added to the mix? You'll need even more cash for two more rockets.
In any case, many expect Rogozin to use this new strategy in his talks with NASA's new Administrator. Rogozin banks on the fact that the U.S. would want Russian involvement bad enough to share the American leadership in the lunar gateway and work with Roscosmos on equal footing.
In case NASA says no, Rogozin threatened to take the Russian lunar exploration program elsewhere. “If suddenly, let assume, the politics take over and our plans are beginning to falter and it is their (American) fault, we will work with other partners,” Rogozin claimed, “We have no shortage of those.”
It's unclear how much of this is bluster and how much is real. China is the only other major player in human space flight and Russia has explored joint missions with its powerful neighbor for a number of years. The s between Russian and Chinese space officials have seemingly intensified in recent months, but according to sources at Roscosmos, there is no active work on any joint piloted project with China at the moment, after very preliminary studies earlier this year.
But that doesn't meant things couldn't change.