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Russian space chief weighs in on SpaceX's historic astronaut launch

SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, on May 31, 2020.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, on May 31, 2020.
(Image: © NASA)

The head of the Russian federal space agency Roscosmos published a lengthy op-ed expressing mixed feelings about the recent SpaceX Demo-2 launch to the International Space Station (ISS).  

Dmitry Rogozin's op-ed, which is available on the Rocosmos website and was previously published in Forbes, points toward Russia's future plans in space as the United States moves most of its crewed opportunities back to American soil.

Demo-2 is the first of what will likely be many American crewed commercial spaceflights. Flights by SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule and, eventually, Boeing's Starliner spacecraft should largely replace the Russian Soyuz missions that NASA astronauts have relied upon since the space shuttle's retirement in 2011.

Related: In photos: SpaceX's historic Demo-2 test flight with astronauts

In 2014, Rogozin tweeted out a memorable remark, saying that, as Russians faced U.S. sanctions related to Russian actions in Crimea, American astronauts could use a trampoline to reach space instead of the Soyuz. 

Shortly after Demo-2's May 30 launch, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk referenced this barb, saying "The trampoline is working!" Rogozin initially said on Twitter that he loved Musk's joke and looks forward to further cooperation. But the new op-ed shows that Rogozin had more to share about the way astronauts are launched to space and the framework of international space cooperation.

The Russians were asked to step in with Soyuz seats for astronauts, Rogozin said, because the space shuttle program was closed down "as the result of its immense costliness and unforgivable failure rate." 

Each NASA space shuttle orbiter used to carry as many as eight people at a time, although seven was a more typical crew capacity. The Russian Soyuz spacecraft has a capacity of three people. 

The space shuttle program flew 135 missions between 1981 and 2011. Two of those missions ended in tragedy: The shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff in January 1986, and Columbia broke apart during re-entry in February 2003. Each tragedy killed seven astronauts. 

The Soviet Union (a predecessor entity to Russia) lost four cosmonauts across two Soyuz mission failures in 1967 and 1971. While the Russians have had no spaceflight fatalities since then, there have been aborts.

Related: Russia's crewed Soyuz space capsule explained (infographic)

Most recently, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft experienced an abort in October 2018, after which the two crewmembers, NASA astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, walked away with no serious injuries. Following an investigation, addressing the problem and several uncrewed rocket flights to test the fix, the ISS coalition decided to proceed with the next crewed Soyuz launch, which went off without a hitch in December 2018. 

"In crewed spaceflights, with people going into space aboard the vehicles, reliability is key to evaluate these technical means ensuring safety of the crews," Rogozin wrote in the op-ed. "Thus, the closure [of the space shuttle] came as a predictable and forced measure, as the Americans lost as many as two crews. Disasters and emergencies have already occurred in crewed cosmonautics, but none of them took this many lives at once."

The Russian Soyuz MS spacecraft that carries crews today, Rogozin said, is the "world's most reliable spacecraft" with 173 successful flights, and three aborts in 1975, 1983 and 2018 that allowed the crews to eject safely. The Soyuz rocket that carries the spacecraft overall has more than 1,900 successful launches, he added. "The U.S. engineers have yet to earn this reputation. I sincerely wish them luck," he said.

Rogozin said that NASA was "hectically searching for a solution" to replacing the space shuttle, a process that ultimately took about 17 years after the fatal Columbia accident in 2003. In 2004, the administration of President George W. Bush announced that the shuttles would be retired

Commercial crew replacements began taking shape under the administration of President Barack Obama, with SpaceX and Boeing receiving spacecraft build contracts in 2014 after several competitive rounds involving other companies. The first launch of a crewed commercial vehicle was delayed by several years due to technical and funding issues, but ultimately happened with Demo-2 on May 30 of this year.

Simultaneous to commercial crew, NASA began to sketch out plans to move farther out into the solar system once again. NASA began developing the deep-space Orion crew capsule, in partnership with prime contractor Lockheed Martin, during the Bush-era Constellation program

Orion has continued development into the present day, even though NASA's exploration focus shifted a few times under other administrations — from a moon-to-Mars Constellation program (Bush) to a "flexible destination" somewhere in deep space (Obama) to a moon-focused Artemis program (Trump). Orion made a successful uncrewed test flight in 2014 around Earth and is expected to launch on a (much-delayed) uncrewed trip around the moon and back no earlier than 2021. This moon mission will mark the debut of NASA's Space Launch System megarocket, which is also key to NASA's deep-space plans.

Related: Space Launch System: NASA's next-generation rocket

"Colossal funds were allocated to create three crewed spacecraft at once with the order distributed among several companies: Lockheed Martin (Orion moon spacecraft), SpaceX (Crew Dragon) and Boeing (Starliner)," Rogozin wrote. 

He further added that the "generosity" of the U.S. government allowed SpaceX to receive a launch pad from NASA "at no expense," as well as a contract to build Crew Dragon and "NASA-paid scientific and technological groundwork and best engineering talents." 

NBC News reported in 2014, however, that SpaceX would be responsible for the costs of maintaining and operating historic Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The story did not disclose contract amounts, nor say what other costs were associated with the 20-year lease agreement between NASA and SpaceX. 

The 2014 contract that SpaceX received from NASA to build Crew Dragon was valued at $2.6 billion, and the contract was awarded following other development contracts between SpaceX and NASA.

Rogozin drew a few parallels between Crew Dragon and the costs of large programs in Russia, including a future lunar spacecraft and the relatively new Vostochny Cosmodrome that could eventually be used to launch Russian cosmonauts (who today launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.)

"The budget funds allocated to Elon Musk are three times bigger than the funding of the contract between Roscosmos and RSC Energia to develop a much more complex Russian lunar 'Oryol' spacecraft (Eagle)," Rogozin wrote. 

"By the way, the Vostochny Cosmodrome costs 2.5 times cheaper than this purportedly private spacecraft – taking into account that the cosmodrome is being built in the Amur Taiga, [an] 8-hour-flight away from Moscow with no necessary workforce, nor construction machinery or logistic centers — all of that we had to bring or create there in the far east [of Russia]."

Rogozin continued with his reasoning about why Demo-2 had proved so popular among Americans. Hardly anyone attended the launch in person due to novel coronavirus-related quarantine restrictions, but the event was noted as NASA's most popular live event online

The Roscosmos head said the Americans were "pretty anxious about the fact that they were fully dependent on the reliability of the Russian Soyuz" during the nine years it has ferried NASA astronauts into orbit. He said the launches happened "in full and with quality." 

He added that the Russians kept the human space program going for all space station partners, while cutting Russian crews and experiments for the sake of the international partnership (presumably, to allow Americans and those using the American segment, such as Europeans, to take seats in the Soyuz.) "The Americans did not have to use the trampoline, as in my metaphor that got wind — we continued delivering their astronauts into space," Rogozin said.

Rogozin did not mention the Soyuz spacecraft found to have an air leak in orbit in 2018, although he did allude to the crew abort. He said the Russians were subject to mockery after the abort, and were not acknowledged for their role in keeping the space program going. 

Rogozin also did not discuss the reliability of Russian Progress cargo ships to the space station that deliver vital supplies for astronauts. Several Progress missions failed during the last decade, and questions have been raised about the reliability of Russian Soyuz rockets as a result.

There also was an allusion to the cost of Soyuz seats, a tricky matter between NASA and Congress for years. Rogozin framed the cost per crew member seat as "honest money," a cost that continued to rise during the decade that NASA relied upon these seats to send people into space. The current cost for a Soyuz seat is estimated at $90 million, while a Crew Dragon seat is around $55 million, Rogozin said. But he said he still feels the Soyuz is a better deal.

"The new American spacecraft are more than double the weight of a Soyuz while offering only one additional seat," Rogozin said. He added that the size of the rockets needed to launch Crew Dragon (a SpaceX Falcon 9) or a Starliner (a United Launch Alliance Atlas V) are much heavier than what is required for Soyuz, which uses a medium-class Soyuz-2.1a rocket. He argued that on that comparison, Russian launches remain cheaper than American launches.

"The sirs seem to confuse launch cost price and launch service price that is formed by the market," Rogozin said. "Hence, I insist that Soyuz MS spacecraft with the Soyuz-2.1a carrier rocket was and still remains unchallenged — whatever our competitors say."

Rogozin also provided some hints about the future Russian space program as the U.S. moves more into commercial crew. He pointed to the long space history Russia has; for example, Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet Union cosmonaut, was the first person to reach space in 1961. "We remain dominant," Rogozin added, saying Musk's flight was more a slight against Boeing than Russia. "This war is theirs, but not ours," he said.

Some of the Russian actions Rogozin highlighted include:

  • Continuing to refine the Soyuz and to build a "new and more advanced spacecraft."
  • Moving forward on development of the more environmentally friendly Angara rocket, which he said was previously delayed due to complicated land-use discussions. He pledged to build a "National Space Center buildings complex" by 2022 and a "modern, state-of-the-art engineering center" for Russian rocket engineers. Angara will be ready to lift off in 2023 from Vostochny, he said, in time to replace the Proton rocket that will be banned in 2025 due to environmental concerns.
  • Finding more ways to continue being competitive in the industry. Rogozin said one great success was cutting the flight time to the International Space Station, with some recent Progress cargo ships reaching ISS in just over three hours (as opposed to the usual days). Ways to remain competitive, he said, include launching Angara, continuing development on tech such as methane-powered engines and nuclear-powered tugs for deep space, creating a two-stage Soyuz light-heavyweight class rocket for testing in 2023, and developing a super-heavy booster to launch future cosmonauts aboard the Oryol crewed spacecraft. Oryol should have flight tests in 2023 and will start flying to the ISS in 2025, he said.
  • Building new ISS modules that will be called Nauka, Prichal (also known as Uzlovoy) and a Science Energy Module, all of which are expected to increase the scientific experiment capacity on the Russian side of the station. These modules will also help in "strengthening [Russia's] independence from the partners," Rogozin said.
  • Continuing work on other missions and projects, such as military missions, expanding Vostochny's capacity to launch missions, launching the Luna-25 mission expected to fly to the moon in 2021, building and launching a lunar orbiter and lunar module to do further moon exploration, and renewing the GLONASS global navigation satellite constellation in Earth orbit.
  • Committing to keep spacecraft spending lean, including a pledge to "radically cut the costs and excessive nonproduction workers." The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Rogozin added, has shown Roscosmos which employees may be able to work remotely continuously.
  • Focusing on "profile" projects in the near future, including rocket construction, satellite construction, ground space infrastructure and science. Roscosmos will maintain independent design bureaus and engineering centers, Rogozin added, for "maintaining the competitive spirit between them in a bid for new projects." He also pledged greater technology transfer, in part by creating joint technology competence centers.

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  • newtons_laws
    Interesting comments by the Russian space chief. He's justifiably proud of the record of the Soyuz spacecraft, it is a reliable workhorse that proved itself over many years. However I think he is straining credulity when he tries to make the claim that Soyuz (which charges $90million for a seat) is a better deal than SpaceX's Dragon which charges $50million. It's irrelevant that the Falcon 9 rocket which is used to launch Dragon is a bigger rocket than the Soyuz2.1a carrier rocket, what matters is the bottom line price for launching an astronaut into orbit, and Space X charging $50million is obviously the better deal (the cheaper price being presumably due in no small part to the fact that the SpaceX 1st stages are recovered and re-used). It would however be interesting to see how much Boeing will be charging for a seat on their Starliner which uses a non re-usable Atlas V launcher ;)

    His comments on future Russian space developments are also interesting, including developing methane burning engines (something already being done by SpaceX for their Raptor engines to be used on the SpaceX starship as well as other US companies) and developing nuclear powered tugs for deep space (at long last), if the Russians do deploy such nuclear powered propulsion (almost certainly nuclear thermal rockets) the US won't want to be left behind. :)
    Reply
  • Asellittojr
    The Russian said that "hardly any one" attended the Dragon Demo 2 launch in person! I guess he was looking from far away in Russia because I was actually there and it took me an extra two hours to get home after the launch because there was hardly anyone causing the massive traffic jams leaving the Cape
    Reply
  • SDelMonte
    Pretty ungracious response that only shows why there will continue to be tension between the two space agencies regardless of who is president. The Russians are not our friends.
    Reply
  • Jackmurphy1969
    Big talk from the head of an agency that hasn't had a significant technological achievement since their last space station caught fire and had to be abandoned. While the Shuttle program is open to a lot of criticism, since the Russians relied on it to get their ISS components into orbit, maybe he shouldn't be someone making those criticisms. A shuttle, that the Russians weren't technically advanced enough to match, even though they had managed to steal all of the plans. As for their number of dead Cosmonauts; four is the acknowledged number. There have been rumors of other fatalities over the decades that occurred under circumstances where they could be denied. Rumors that successive governments have never addressed, despite their pathological need to look like the West's equal or better in all areas; regardless of the truth. Bottom line, he's envious of the prospect of high reusability launch systems and capsules and upset at the budget cuts loosing the NASA contract will cause.
    Reply
  • Gagarin
    SDelMonte said:
    Pretty ungracious response that only shows why there will continue to be tension between the two space agencies regardless of who is president. The Russians are not our friends.

    Your conclusion is contradictory to what NASA Administrator James Bridenstine told in this interview with Mat Kaplan on Planetary Radio

    https://www.planetary.org/multimedia/planetary-radio/show/2020/0415-2020-nasa-admin-james-bridenstine.html
    "James Bridenstine: ... to go forward. Even though we have our own access to the International Space Station, it becomes a partnership. The goal is that our partners would launch with us, um, and we would launch with our partners.

    We would want to launch, you know, our crews with some of our cosmonaut, uh, partners. And, and then when, when Soyuz launches, we would wanna see Americans on those, on those Soyuz launchers as well.

    Remember, the International Space Station really has two major parts. That, one half of it is the U.S. segment and the other half of it is the Russian segment. So we wanna make sure that, that our crew and their crew are always present on the International Space Station. And so that requires that... u- us to continue to collaborate not just at the ISS, but also getting to and from of the ISS.

    If only Americans launch on American rockets and only Russians launch on Russian rockets, we're gonna end up in a situation where the ISS's crew, exclusively by Americans or exclusively by Russians at certain points-

    James Bridenstine: ... in time. Uh, so we wanna make sure that the partnership goes forward, uh, but we also wanna make sure that it's not a dependency.

    That, uh, that we do have our own access, um, and that the partnership will remain strong."
    Reply
  • IanAnthonyMartin
    Jackmurphy1969 said:
    Big talk from the head of an agency that hasn't had a significant technological achievement since their last space station caught fire and had to be abandoned. While the Shuttle program is open to a lot of criticism, since the Russians relied on it to get their ISS components into orbit, maybe he shouldn't be someone making those criticisms. A shuttle, that the Russians weren't technically advanced enough to match, even though they had managed to steal all of the plans. As for their number of dead Cosmonauts; four is the acknowledged number. There have been rumors of other fatalities over the decades that occurred under circumstances where they could be denied. Rumors that successive governments have never addressed, despite their pathological need to look like the West's equal or better in all areas; regardless of the truth. Bottom line, he's envious of the prospect of high reusability launch systems and capsules and upset at the budget cuts loosing the NASA contract will cause.
    There may or may not have been additional fatalities, but there certainly have been near misses, such as the Soyuz 5 accident.

    Of course, STS-8 very nearly suffered an SRB failure, STS-27 nearly suffered a Columbia-type disaster, and if that Draco design flaw had shown itself during a manned mission...
    Reply
  • Bart
    "The new American spacecraft are more than double the weight of a Soyuz while offering only one additional seat," Rogozin said.

    This is not correct.

    Crew Dragon was initially called DragonRiderand it was intended from the beginning to support a crew of seven or a combination of crew and cargo.

    Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon_2
    That is more than twice Soyuz can carry, not mention cargo.

    Soyuz can only carry a couple of kg cargo per person.

    Payload capacity for crew Dragon according above source.
    6,000 kg (13,000 lb) to orbit3,000 kg (6,600 lb) return cargo800 kg (1,800 lb) disposed cargo
    Dmitry Rogozin clearly is comparing two spacecrafts with totally different capabilities....
    Reply
  • newtons_laws
    newtons_laws said:
    Interesting comments by the Russian space chief. He's justifiably proud of the record of the Soyuz spacecraft, it is a reliable workhorse that proved itself over many years. However I think he is straining credulity when he tries to make the claim that Soyuz (which charges $90million for a seat) is a better deal than SpaceX's Dragon which charges $50million. It's irrelevant that the Falcon 9 rocket which is used to launch Dragon is a bigger rocket than the Soyuz2.1a carrier rocket, what matters is the bottom line price for launching an astronaut into orbit, and Space X charging $50million is obviously the better deal (the cheaper price being presumably due in no small part to the fact that the SpaceX 1st stages are recovered and re-used). It would however be interesting to see how much Boeing will be charging for a seat on their Starliner which uses a non re-usable Atlas V launcher ;)

    I've now seen prices quoted for a seat on Boeing's Starliner - it's $90million (same as Soyuz charges)! https://www.space.com/spacex-boeing-commercial-crew-seat-prices.html
    So not only were Boeing given far more money than SpaceX to develop a manned spacecraft it looks like Boeing will be charging over 50% more per seat than SpaceX. If I were a US taxpayer I would definitely know which company has provided the better deal....
    Reply