By Bernard Casey
If it can be said that the 1957 Soviet launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite triggered a global space race, then Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's 1961 maiden journey into outer space and orbit of the Earth surely secured Russia's legacy as the global leader in space exploration. This legacy includes technological advances in aerospace engineering, astronomy, physics, microelectronics, telecommunications, and innumerable other byproduct applications. Today, Russia's space industry remains a vital part of economy, involving more than 100 companies employing more than 250,000 people as of 2006, according to the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. Moving forward, Russia's continued development of its exploratory, commercial, and military space activities will ensure its national competitive advantage in space, accelerate its economic modernization, and enhance its national security.
The most ambitious modern Russian space program to date is the $150 billion International Space Station (ISS), the successor to the Russian Mir Space Station which operated in space from 1986 to 2001. The ISS was actually a merger in 1993 of Russia's Mir-2 Space Station with two other proposed space stations, the US's Freedom and the EU's Columbus. The Mir and the ISS have been serviced by the Russian Soyuz manned spacecraft, the Russian Proton unmanned spacecraft, and the US Space Shuttle. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, instead arranging for US astronauts to reach the ISS aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. In July 2011, Russia announced plans to replace its existing Soyuz spacecraft with a new spacecraft that will begin testing in 2015, and that will have "elements of multi-use whose level will be much higher than they are today," according to deputy head of the Federal Space Agency of Russia (RosCosmos), Vitaliy Davydov. Another potential supply line to the ISS was opened in May, when the Dragon spacecraft, developed by the private US company Space Exploration Technologies Company (SpaceX), successfully reached the ISS. Russia plans to decommission the ISS by sinking it in the ocean in 2020. Russia's next space station, OPSEK, is currently being assembled on the ISS.
There are even vital Russian contributions to the $2.6 billion US Curiosity Mars exploration rover (MER) that landed on Mars earlier this month to study the surface of the planet in search of evidence of life. The MER is equipped with a Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) detector, a neutron spectrometer which measures subsurface water distribution, and which was actually developed by Russia's Space Research Institute (IKI) and RosCosmos. Previous iterations of Russia's DAN technology, which were used in earlier NASA missions to Mars, detected ice at higher elevations on the red planet.
Russia's potential in the growing commercial space industry is huge. In June, Sergei Zhukov, head of the Space Technology and Telecommunications Cluster at Skolkovo Innovation Centre, described the potential of the commercial space industry: "Indeed, the world economy is becoming more and more dependent on the intensity of space activities. The market for space technology production and services is variously estimated at between $300 billion and $400 billion a year. It has several segments, the biggest being satellite communications and telecommunications (over $100 billion), navigation and distance Earth sensing. Russia's share in these segments is less than one percent. In the production of satellites of various kinds, our share is 7-10 percent. Our share is traditionally high - 33 to 40 percent - in orbiting payloads, but that segment is small, about $3 billion a year."
Over the period of 2007-2011, Russia made the most successful orbital launches of satellites, typically 25-30 per year, in most years double that of its nearest competitors, the US and China, according to logs from SpaceFlightNow and RussianSpaceWeb. However, Russia's quest for superiority in the commercial space race has not been without its glitches, most notably an alarmingly high number of failed missile launches and satellite losses. After the most recent loss of both a Russian satellite and an Indonesian satellite after a failed Russian Proton carrier rocket on August 7, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev took urgent action.
On August 14, Medvedev chaired a meeting with officials from his cabinet and RosCosmos to determine the cause of these failures and to determine "the practical steps that are envisaged to improve the quality of the industry". In his opening remarks and online commentary, Medvedev said, "Our country annually provides up to 40% of all space launches in the world. In this regard, we have very good opportunities, but we need to draw conclusions from the series of problems that currently exist. We have had an accident during the launch of space vehicles with an unenviable degree of regularity. Over the past year and a half - seven emergency starts, 10 satellites lost. We need to decide who is to blame for this series of recent setbacks, where mistakes were made, and to determine the degree of responsibility of all implicated in these problems. Issues of quality control remain an acute problem in production in the space industry. They must be worked out at the Government level within one month and then I will hold a meeting with the participation of all key businesses." Medvedev also reiterated that Russia plans to invest 650 billion rubles ($20.4 billion) in the space industry for the period 2012-2015.