MOSCOW, April 12. /TASS/. Wednesday marks the anniversary of the first manned flight to space, performed by Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961. The date is celebrated as the Cosmonautics Day in Russia and the International Day of Human Space Flight worldwide.
The recent years have been difficult for Russia’s space agency Roscosmos and the country’s entire space industry in general, due to international sanctions against Russia and successes by the country’s space rivals, notably from the United States. While Russia had to cope with cuts in the financing of its Federal Space Program and Proton engine malfunction issues, the United States successfully tested reusable rocket boosters and continued tests of delivery vehicles intended to replace Russian-made Soyuz carrier rockets.
Space rivalry intensifies
Russia’s space rivals have made significant progress in recent years. Last year, Russia dropped to third place in the overall space launch count, losing to both the United States and China. The competition for the leadership in space has further intensified amid successes by US aerospace manufacturer and transport services company SpaceX, which for the first time ever successfully reused a previously flown Falcon 9 rocket booster on March 31.
"As far as the competition in the space industry is concerned, it has intensified sharply in recent months. The re-launch of a booster by (Elon) Musk and plans to replace our RD-180 rocket engines with those made in the US by the Blue Origin demonstrate that we are entering difficult times and that the reserves of the Soviet space program are now about to be depleted," said Alexander Zheleznyakov of Russia’s Tsiolkovsky Academy of Cosmonautics.
"If the Roscosmos leadership is aware of this, there is still a chance that we will succeed, but if we continue to rest on our laurels, we will lose this struggle for competitiveness," he said, adding that although projects for reusable boosters are explored by Russian space industry researches as well, they are far from completion.
"While we are trying to catch up, our rivals will increase the gap in the development of space technologies. If we want to catch up with them, we will have to be proactive. If we simply mirror the achievements and technological ideas of others, we will always stay behind," the expert said.
US companies took the lead in commercial launches as well last year. According to the US Federal Aviation Administration, US space launch service providers earned some nine times more than their Russian counterparts, $1.2 billion versus 130 million.
According to SpaceX estimates, reusable boosters will allow to further decrease costs of commercial launches by 30%, from the current $61.2 million to about 43 million. The launch of Russia’s Proton-M rocket is estimated to cost about 65 million, while the new Angara-A5 rocket, intended to replace Protons, is expected to be even more expensive.
Despite difficulties, Russia’s space corporation Roscosmos has big plans for the current year. Although the company had to deal with Proton engine problems, caused by the use of wrong solder alloy during the production, it vows to fulfill the 2017 launch schedule in full. Once the issue is fixed, Roscosmos plans to launch seven rockets with those engines this year, including for commercial customers. In total, the space corporation plans to hold at least 30 rocket launches in 2017, two of them will take place at Russia’s newest launch facility, the Vostochny space center in Russia’s Far East.
This year, Russia plans to start designing the Angara-A5V rocket for the lunar mission. Elements of the Federatsiya (Federation) spacecraft to take cosmonauts to the moon are currently being assembled by the Rocket and Space Corporation Energia.
The Sea Launch project is also expected to resume in 2017 after being purchased by S7 Group from Russian aerospace contractor RSC Energia. A Zenit carrier rocket is expected blast off from a floating launch platform in the Pacific Ocean to put an Angolan satellite into orbit.
Roscosmos is also expected to expand the Russian segment of the International Space Station (ISS) by adding the Nauka research module to it. However, according to unnamed space industry sources, the launch of the Nauka module may be postponed until 2018 or even cancelled due to technical problems.
Space industry celebrates its holiday
Events to mark the Cosmonautics Day will be held at the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan and Russia’s Vostochny space center. On this day, officials from Roscosmos and other space industry enterprises will lay flowers to the Kremlin wall, where first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and the founder of the Soviet space program Sergei Korolyov are buried.
The Russian federal agency responsible for civilian aid and humanitarian projects abroad will hold commemorative events in 81 countries. Those events will include photo exhibitions, lectures and meetings with cosmonauts.
The Russian capital will be decorated by images of the Earth’s orbit and planets of the solar system as seen from a spacecraft, as well as with pictures illustrating Soviet space achievements: the launch of the first artificial space satellite, Yuri Gagarin’s flight, Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk, the Lunokhod-1 lunar rover, Salyut-1 and Mir space stations.
The Cosmonaut Training Center will host a post-flight news conference of Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Andrei Borisenko, who returned from the ISS on April 10.
So far, Oleg Novitsky remains the only Russian cosmonaut in space. His partners on board the International Space Station are NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet.