In 2025, the era of the International Space Station is supposed to end. Russia, China and the United States will switch to their own programs in near space. All space powers have their problems. Who is going to win the race?
Roscosmos CEO Dmitry Rogozin wrote in Telegram that the Russian Space Agency started working on the construction of the first module of the new Russian orbital station.
"The work on the first base module for the new Russian orbital service station is underway. The Energia Rocket and Space Corporation has been tasked to ensure its readiness for launch into orbit in 2025," Rogozin wrote.
Earlier, Moscow announced that it would phase out the use of the International Space Station (ISS) after its planned service life reaches the limit in 2024.
Currently, the ISS is a joint project of the National American Space Agency (NASA) and Roscosmos. Both sides admit that the project has become technologically outdated. In 2019-2020, the ISS had to go through a number of serious problems, including cracks in the hull that led to air leaks.
The first module of the station was launched in 1998, and its service life was extended twice: first from 2015 to 2020, and then until 2024.
On April 12, when the world celebrated the Cosmonautics Day, Vladimir Putin held a closed meeting dedicated to the Russian space industry. During the meeting, officials discussed the idea of the Russian national orbital station. As follows from Rogozin's statement, the work on the question is already underway.
"We will analyze what needs to be done to strengthen our position in this strategic industry," President Putin said.
The Russian president called to revise large projects and a new space exploration strategy for a ten-year period.
The new Russian Orbital Space Station, or ROSS, will consist of three to seven modules:
Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said in an interview with Russia-1 TV channel that Moscow would hold consultations with other countries on future cooperation on the project.
China's state-owned Global Times has responded to the news from Russia. Chinese experts, whom the newspaper interviewed, said that Russia's decision to build its own space station was consistent with its principle of self-sustaining aerospace development.
However, China is not overlooking the option of international cooperation on board its own space station, which is expected to be operational by 2022.
The Tiangong-3 Space Station (the size of the Russian "Mir") is said to accommodate three cosmonauts (up to six people can be possible too, for a long stay). The station is to be delivered into orbit by means of 12 launches of the Changzheng carrier rocket. The first launch is scheduled for April. The manned Shenzhou-12 spacecraft with a crew on board is to be launched into space in June.
Wang Yanan, editor-in-chief of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, expressed concern about the financing issues of Russia's newly announced space project, as Moscow has also announced ambitious plans to conduct missions to the Moon and then to Mars in the next few years.
Ivan Moiseev, the scientific director of the Institute of Space Policy, agrees with the Chinese expert. In a commentary for Pravda.Ru, he said that Roscosmos "promised pie in the sky" in the form of Soyuz-5 and Ural rockets, a super-heavy rocket, but every project costs a lot of money, to say the least.
"Even if we spend the entire Russian budget on space exploration, they will fail too, because they will not be able to spend this money appropriately. Russia lacks highly qualified specialists, let alone production facilities. For the time being, the funding decreases, but not increases," said Ivan Moiseev.
He is skeptical about the announced timeline for putting the first ROSS module into orbit in 2025.
According to Ivan Moiseev, the Chinese always work independently. It is complicated for them to fly to the Russian station, "because their inclination is different, and it is difficult for us to fly to their station for the same reason."
The United States is also preparing to decommission the ISS, albeit only the Russian part of it. NASA awarded privately-owned company Axiom Space a $140 million contract to build modules that would be added to the ISS. When the Russian section of the ISS ceases to exist, Axiom plans to transform its modules into the renewed space station.
There is also a new NASA project — Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD), within the framework of which it is planned to allocate a total of $400 million in the fourth quarter of 2021.
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) announced its intention to host a virtual press conference to showcase the SNC space station design.
The United States has a big problem — it does not have the reliable booster rocket. For nearly ten years after the last space shuttle mission, Russia's Soyuz rockets have remained the only means of transportation to deliver US astronauts to the ISS. NASA's Commercial Crew Program that targets the development of private manned spacecraft to deliver astronauts to the ISS, is not working the way the Americans would like it to.
It was in 2021, when NASA assumed that Crew Dragon's SpaceX and Boeing's Starliner would be able to fly astronauts to the ISS and back, but Boeing failed to make the Starliner project successful, while SpaceX is too far from perfection as well.
The United States bought last flight for astronaut Mark Vande Hey through a barter deal on Soyuz-18 from Axiom Space. In return the company obtained a seat on an American commercial spacecraft in 2023. This suggests that NASA still has no confidence in its own abilities.
In addition, the contract for the supplies of Russian RD-180 rocket engines has ended. The United States has repeatedly tried to build its own high-quality rocket engines and abandon the Russian ones that are currently used for the first state of US-made Atlas carrier rockets. No luck so far.
SpaceX does not yet use its Raptor engine for its rockets, even though it is claimed to be the best rocket engine in the world. For Falcon-9 and Falcon Heavy, Merlin engines are used, but they are less advanced than Russia's RD-180.
Therefore, in order to gain influence in space (and on Earth too), China lacks experience. The Celestial Empire reached the point of manned space exploration only five years ago. At any moment, something can go wrong. Russia does not have enough money, and the United States does not have enough time. Time will show which of the three powers will become the leader in near-Earth space cooperation, if it is destined to take place at all.
Ivan Moiseev believes that each space power is engaged in its own projects.
"It does not make sense for the Americans or the Chinese to fly to the Russian station, because they have programs of their own: the moon, the lunar station, the lunar base and the commercial station. There were negotiations conducted regarding the lunar station under the Artemis program of the United States and their allies, but they were fruitless," Ivan Moiseev told Pravda. Ru.
France is used to terminating large-scale contracts, as that was the case of the Russian-French deal on Mistral helicopter carriers