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Is U.S.-Russian Space Cooperation Coming To An End?

After nine years of the United States relying entirely on Russian Soyuz rockets to deliver astronauts into orbit, this dependency finally ended on May 30, 2020, with the successful launch of the private US company SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, bound for the International Space Station (ISS) (TASS, May 31). Combined with the looming termination of Moscow’s RD-180 rocket engine supply contract as well as ongoing negotiations on Russia’s role in the US’s planned orbital station “Lunar Gateway,” the commercial SpaceX manned launch symbolizes the ongoing uncoupling of the US-Russian partnership in outer space.

During the first decade of the space partnership, beginning in 1992, seemingly common values and a larger shared purpose of democratizing and liberalizing Russia allowed both sides to manage their political differences. This facilitated space-related cooperation and created lasting mutual interdependence in this sector. Moreover, the relationship helped to legitimize Russia’s domestic political order in the eyes of the Russian people, who consider space activity an essential part of their national historical heritage (see EDM, April 29). However, with Russia no longer seeking or willing to entertain US/Western assistance regarding economic or democratic governance reforms, those original shared goals and common values are no longer part of the bilateral agenda. The same holds for bilateral trust: the confrontation (since 2014) between Russia and the West on the ground undermines efforts to cooperate in outer space.

In this situation, Washington has sought to be pragmatic regarding future space cooperation with Moscow, seeking to keep it involved in the US space program while endeavoring to eliminate any dependencies. In turn, Moscow has been working to preserve its status as a crucial and special US partner in space exploration. This political framework will define the way cooperation in space will be reconsidered over the coming years.

At present, Russia faces multiple negative trends that affect its homegrown space industry. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon eliminated Russia’s monopoly on manned space flights. And when Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner becomes operational in 2021, it will become even harder for Moscow to contribute to the space partnership with Washington.

An equally negative set of trends pertains to Russia’s rocket engine supply business. Between 1999 and 2019, Russia sold 119 RD-180 rocket engines to the United States (Kommersant, December 3, 2018; RIA Novosti, July 22, 2019; Engine.space, October 31, 2019). And as of June 2020, 90 US launches specifically employed the RD-180 propulsion system. Notably, the US space program’s reliance on this Russian technology persisted even after the Crimean annexation in 2014, although the downturn in political relations slowed down future purchases by the US side. Initially, Russia supplied up to 11 such RD-180 engines to the United States every year (Engine.space, December 28, 2018). However, by 2019, that number had dropped to only six. An additional six will be purchased by the US in 2020 (RIA Novosti, January 22, 2020), along with (presumably) the final six engines in 2021–2022, at which point the contract is set to expire (SpaceNews, June 14, 2016; Armedservices.house.gov, April 3, 2019). The US has built up a sufficiently large reserve of RD-180 engines to last through the transition to a new, fully US-built Vulcan heavy launch vehicle (maiden flight planned for 2021). Moreover, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have already reduced the need for the RD-180-powered Atlas Vs. Russia also sells RD-181 engines for the Antares launch vehicle, produced by Northrop Grumman; but annual supplies never exceeded five units (22 engines in total were sold between 2015 and 2019). As such, one of the last meaningful sources of interdependence between Russia and the United States is continuing to erode (see EDM, July 19, 2018).

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The degradation of cooperation with the US will also increasingly constrain heretofore reliable revenue flows to the Russian space industry. Today, a single seat on a Soyuz spacecraft costs $86 million for foreign astronauts; and the United States had been paying not only for American but also for European, Canadian and Japanese spacefarers. Consequently, in 2019 alone, Russia collected $430 million for delivering astronauts to the ISS. Throughout the period 2006–2020, Moscow sold 70 seats aboard its manned rockets for a total of $3.9 billion (Nasa.gov, November 14, 2019). The actual manufacture of the Soyuz spacecraft and its launch vehicle costs Russia $70 million. While the current cost to produce each RD-180 and RD-181 engine may be estimated at $15 million. The revenue from the US contracts was, thus, quite significant for Russia’s state-owned space industry, especially considering that, in 2019, Russia itself spent less than $1.4 billion for its civil space program (Economy.gov.ru, April 1, 2020). But that source of revenue is now set to dwindle over the coming years.

Despite decades of fruitful cooperation with the US, Russia did not take full advantage of this partnership to improve the domestic space-industrial sector. Moscow did not complete the development of a new spacecraft and launch vehicle (Kommersant, June 8, 2020; N+1, January 18, 2019), and never even completed the construction of the Russian segment of the ISS—its three modules are still on Earth, in different stages of manufacture (Roscosmos.ru, June 26, 2019 and June 17, 2020). Paradoxically, however, those unfulfilled space station additions may be key to Russia’s efforts to save its long-term space collaboration with the United States.

For the financial- and prestige-related reasons mentioned above, the Russian leadership is doing all it can to ensure the country can continue to play an institutionalized role as a partner of the US in space in the post-ISS era. The main option for Russia is to take one or two of its three modules originally designed for the ISS and offer to integrate them into the US’s planned Lunar Gateway station, which will orbit around the Moon (RIA Novosti, April 17). The problem for Moscow is that, at present, it has nothing else to propose to Washington other than to repurpose these modules, since Russia is not ready to alter the paradigm of its civilian space program in which manned spaceflights account for more than half of total spending.

For Russia, scientific pursuits have always been secondary to the manned flights' side of its civilian space program; as such it is willing to spend billions of dollars to secure a role for itself to ferry astronauts to and from the US’s Lunar Gateway (Vedomosti, September 2, 2019). Moreover, the Kremlin will certainly pay more attention to space relations with France, Germany, Japan and other partners in order to be able to argue that the US accepts Russia into the Gateway program—though, on Moscow’s terms.

By The Jamestown Foundation

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