On Cosmonautics Day, Russia Laments State of Space Program
On this day in 1961, the Soviet Union launched the first human being into space -- Yuri Gagarin. It was the height of the Cold War and Soviet space achievements were outshining the United States. Fast forward 56 years and the two former space rivals are now engaged in a successful partnership operating the International Space Station (ISS), but some Russians are lamenting the state of their space program especially when compared with U.S. advances.
Russia's official news agency Tass published a lengthy article today -- Cosmonautics Day in Russia in commemoration of Gagarin's flight. "The recent years have been difficult" for Russia's space program "due to international sanctions against Russia and successes by the country's space rivals, notably from the United States," Tass reports. While space program funding has been cut in Russia, "the United States successfully tested reusable rocket boosters and continued tests of delivery vehicles intended to replace Russian-made Soyuz" rockets.
SpaceX's launch of a reused rocket and plans to replace Russia's RD-180 engines for the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket "demonstrate that we are entering difficult times and that the reserves of the Soviet space program are now about to be depleted," according to Alexander Zheleznyakov of the Tsiolkovsky Academy of Cosmonautics.
Indeed, the Russian space program has been plagued with failures of several of its once-reliable rockets, including Soyuz and Proton. Russia is developing the new Angara family of rockets to replace those and other Soviet-era designs, but more than two years have passed since the first tests. Corruption is one of the problems facing the space program overall. Funding cutbacks are another. Sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries because of Russia's actions in Ukraine have had a significant economic impact and the deteriorating U.S.-Russia relationship led to the decision to replace the RD-180 engines on Atlas V with American-made equivalents.
To date, at least, the ISS partnership has been spared any fallout from the changed relationship. While April 12 is known as Cosmonautics Day and primarily celebrates Gagarin's flight, it is also the 36th anniversary of the first U.S. space shuttle flight. The decision to terminate the shuttle program in 2011, after 30 years of service, made the United States dependent on Russia for access to the ISS. Crews are taken to and from ISS in Soyuz spacecraft on Soyuz rockets. Three ISS crew members just returned to Earth on April 10 and a new crew will launch on April 20. As a sign of the times, Russia is reducing its ISS crew complement from three to two to lessen resupply requirements so fewer Progress cargo spacecraft are needed.
Nonetheless, Russia's space state corporation Roscosmos is making big plans for the near- and long-term future, including sending cosmonauts to the Moon using Angara-5 rockets and a new "Federatsiya" (Federation) spacecraft.
Whatever the future may hold, today is a day of celebration for human spaceflight enthusiasts everywhere with Yuri's night events scheduled around the world.
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