Sixty-three years ago, the Soviet Union put the first satellite in space. Nearly four years later, it sent the first man into orbit, Yuri Gagarin. It fell behind Nasa in the space race that followed, but even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia remained a reliable space power, joining with the United States to build and operate the International Space Station for the past two decades.
Now, the future of the Russian space programme rests with the world’s new space power, China. After years of promises and some limited co-operation, Russia and China have begun to draw up ambitious plans for missions that would directly compete with those of the United States and its partners, ushering in a new era of space competition that could be as intense as the first.
They have teamed for a robotic mission to an asteroid in 2024. They are co-ordinating a series of lunar missions intended to build a permanent research base on the south pole of the moon by 2030. The first of those missions, a Russian spacecraft with the revived Soviet-era name Luna, is scheduled to launch as soon as October, aiming to locate ice that could provide water to future human visits.
“China has an ambitious programme, has resources to match it and it has a plan,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Russia, by contrast, “needs a partner”.
The budding new partnership reflects the geopolitics of the world today. China and Russia have grown increasingly close under their current leaders, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, smoothing decades of mistrust between the countries and creating a potent, although unofficial, alliance against what they perceive as the hegemonic behaviour of the United States.
Space has become a natural extension of the two countries’ warming ties, given increasingly fraught relations with the US.
Russian officials have signalled they may pull out of the International Space Station once the current agreement with its partners ends in 2024. The launch last year of SpaceX’s crew capsule had ended Russia’s exclusive role ferrying American astronauts into orbit.
Russia has cited various reasons, but politics seem to be a factor. Last week, the director of Russia’s space agency, Dmitri O Rogozin, said that Russia would withdraw if the US maintained sanctions that have impacted Russia’s space programme.
“The US-Russian co-operation on the space station has been touted as symbolic of the ability of countries to work together even during times of stress, but that stress has reached a point where all bets are off,” said Joan S Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security at the US Naval War College.
Russia, for all its experience in space, has struggled to sustain a storied programme that has been fighting obsolescence and corruption, and is starved of resources in Russia’s stagnant economy. China, a relative latecomer to space exploration, has by contrast leaped to the top ranks of space powers with missions that Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, failed to accomplish, including landing and deploying a robotic rover on Mars last month.
Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei pictured on TV waving as he heads to board the Shenzhou V spacecraft on a Long March CZ-2F rocket, on October 15th, 2003, at the Jiquan Launch Center in northwest China. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images
This spring, China launched the first modules of a new orbiting space station and could as soon as Thursday send the first three astronauts to occupy it. The demise of the International Space Station – originally planned for 2024, although that is likely to be extended could soon leave China with the only inhabited outpost orbiting Earth.
China, which sent its first astronauts into space in 2003, was never invited to join the International Space Station. Legislation adopted by the US Congress in 2011 prohibited Nasa from virtually any co-operation with the Chinese space administration or any related companies, citing the risk of espionage.
China says it has made a virtue of necessity, developing its own space capabilities, although it also bought equipment from the Russians to help build two temporary space stations in 2011 and 2016. Its third, called Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace”, is designed to be completed next year after 11 launches. It is designed to orbit the Earth for at least a decade after that.
“The long-term foreign blockade forced our independent innovation,” Yang Hong, one of Tiangong’s designers, told China’s state television network last month. “We must have our own. We cannot always run behind others.”
China has pledged to open the station to foreign astronauts and experiments, although by design it will be a Chinese-dominated endeavour. Russia and China have not yet signalled any joint co-operation onboard.
“We are determined to make our space station a shared platform for scientific and technological research to benefit all people around the world,” Hao Chun, director of the China Manned Space Agency, said in an interview carried by state media organisations.
Russia and China have co-operated in space before. China’s first astronauts, called “taikonauts”, flew in Russian spacesuits. Later, China made its own suits, based on Russian designs, which also feature in some of the Chinese rockets.
China’s first unsuccessful attempt to send an orbiter to Mars hitched a ride on a Russian mission to one of the Martian moons, Phobos. The Russian rocket stalled in low-Earth orbit, crippled by faulty computer circuits, and the spacecraft eventually plunged back to Earth.
Working with China now has given Russia the possibility of pursuing the type of ambitious scientific voyage that it has not achieved on its own in the post-Soviet era as it struggled with declining budgets and corruption.
A month after announcing joint work on the lunar station, the two countries announced in April that they would team for a 2024 robotic mission to an asteroid called Kamo’oalewa. The spacecraft will circle past Earth to drop off a sample and then use Earth’s gravity as a slingshot for a secondary trip to a comet.
“It’s a natural partnership,” said Gregory Kulacki, the China project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The Russians have a lot of expertise. The Chinese have the resources to fund it.”
The new agreement on the lunar outpost suggests a deepening involvement, with Russia now piggybacking on China’s ambitious plans to build a base for future space exploration and the extraction of natural resources.
For Russia, that has enabled a revival of the Soviet Union’s moon exploration project, including a robotic programme called Luna that began in the 1950s. According to a presentation by Pei Zhaoyu, deputy director of China’s Lunar Exploration and Space Programme Centre, at a conference in Nanjing in April, Russia’s next three Luna missions will be integrated with China’s Chang’e series of spacecraft, named after a moon goddess of Chinese mythology.
Luna 27 and Chang’e-6, for example, are planned to drill into the surface and return samples to Earth – a feat that China accomplished in December with Chang’e-5 and the Soviet Union did with Luna landers three times in the 1970s. In a second stage, between 2026 and 2030, the Chang’e-8 and Luna 28 missions will land separately with the first building blocks of the new station.
The first of Russia’s missions is scheduled for October, although Russia’s space programme has a track record of lengthy delays. Ultimately, China hopes the station will demonstrate the ability to develop water, mineral and energy resources that could allow the short-term survival of astronauts and serve as a base for deeper space exploration.
“A permanent base has both symbolic and power projection capabilities,” said Namrata Goswami, an independent analyst and co-author of a new book on space exploration, Scramble for the Skies. – New York Times