March 26, 2022:
Economic disruptions created by the current Russian invasion of Ukraine had some beneficial effects. Two examples are the accelerated demise of the American ULA (United Launch Alliance) monopoly and the elimination of Roscosmos, the Russian government organization controlling all space program activities, as a major competitor.
ULA was already in trouble before the invasion. In 2006 veteran space program suppliers Lockheed Martin and Boeing formed a legal cartel that monopolized satellite launch services for the U.S. government. After 2006 all this business was to go to a government-approved monopoly called the ULA which gets Atlas 5 SLVs (Satellite Launch Vehicles) from Lockheed Martin and Delta 4 SLVs from Boeing. These two firms have dominated U.S. space launches for over half a century and in 2006 they monopolized it. But not for long, as the future arrived unexpectedly in the form of SpaceX, a new firm that required no guaranteed government contracts or any government subsidies and did what ULA did but faster and cheaper.
Roscosmos became a monopoly in 2015 when it absorbed the few remaining space program entities it did not already control. One item Roscosmos and ULA had in common was the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, which is used for both the Atlas and Delta SLVs. The Atlas SLV is retiring in a few years and the ULA already received all the RD-180 rockets to handle the remaining Atlas SLV launches. This was demanded by Congress after the 2014 Russian attack on Ukraine.
The ULA monopoly is not absolute. Since 2013 NASA has been using the Antares SLV from Northrup-Grumman, a veteran aerospace firm that is getting back into the SLV business via this medium sized rocket. Antares uses RD-181 rockets, which consist of components made in Russia and Ukraine. Russia is now banned from supplying its RD-181 components while the two Ukrainian firms that build RD-181 components have been attacked by Russian missiles during the current invasion and may undergo more such attacks. One of those Ukrainian firms also produced the RD-843 rockets for upper stages of European Vega SLVs. Russia has threatened to cease all cooperation on supporting the ISS, but quietly suggested that a deal was possible if adjustments were made to the economic sanctions recently inflicted on Russia because of its current Ukraine invasion.
Russian threats have accelerated efforts by American and European firms to build supply and crew capsules to replace the Soyuz capsules. SpaceX has already developed a cargo capsule that has been in regular use since 2010 and its crew capsule was recently approved for regular use.
Roscosmos has long provided regular deliveries of supplies and transport of crew to and from the ISS (International Space Station). Russia uses its Soyuz SLV to put the Russian cargo and passenger capsules into orbit where they maneuver to and dock at the ISS. Russia and the United States are the major suppliers of new components to the ISS and use their own SLVs to get these components into orbit.
Despite the tension between Russia and the other nations responsible for operating the ISS, Russia is trying to maintain its duties up there. The latest (March 18) Soyuz crew capsule to arrive at the ISS carried three Russians, all wearing yellow and blue (the colors of the Ukrainian flag) flight suits. Russia insisted this had nothing to do with the Ukraine fighting. These three Russians will serve on the ISS for about 30 weeks as part of the seven people who operate the ISS. Most Roscosmos personnel support continued participation in maintaining the ISS until its retirement in 2030. Some Roscosmos personnel also oppose the invasion of Ukraine but expressing that opposition openly is now a felony in Russia and at least 15,000 Russians have been arrested for demonstrating their opposition. So the Russian ISS crew members went with their government’s explanation that the colors of the flight suits were a coincidence.
Despite the professionalism and dedication of many Roscosmos personnel, key officials continue to cause problems with mismanagements and corruption. This causes problems with the contracts it already has. For example, in 2018 a Soyuz rocket failed as it was attempting to take two men (a Russian and an American) to the ISS. The two passengers survived because of the emergency recovery system that is part of the manned rocket. The failed Soyuz rocket was another example of the continued management and quality control problems in the Russian space program. Previously there had only been two failures of a Soyuz manned capsule, in 1975 and 1983. The 1983 failure involved a rocket catching fire on the launch pad and the crew rescue system saved the passengers, as was the case during the 2018 failure. As in the past, the Russians recovered and carried out a successful launch to deliver three people to the ISS.
There have been over 1,900 launches of a Soyuz SLV since 1966 and the success rate has been 98 percent. The failures include the inability to reach the correct orbit. The Soyuz FG SLV, used to carry passengers, has been used 65 times since entering service in 2001 and all were successful until the 2018 failure. The Soyuz FG is a more advanced and, until the recent failure, more reliable version of the Soyuz SLV design. There have been some recent problems with the Soyuz models used to launch satellites. Russia insisted that Soyuz FG was different but the personnel and management problems in the Russian space program could not be completely avoided.
Cheaper and more reliable Chinese SLVs are taking business away from Roscosmos. Russia lacks the cash to compete with the much more affluent China. There is also the entrepreneurial approach that China and the U.S. share. This is why China is working on an SLV design that can duplicate SpaceX innovations. Russia prefers not to risk scarce funds on duplicating SpaceX tech.
Since 2010 SpaceX has been gradually eroding the Roscosmos monopoly on taking crews and cargo to the ISS. This became more urgent since a Soyuz passenger capsule that reached the ISS in 2018 was later found to have a tiny leak, which was apparently created during manufacture and not detected by quality control. The growing number of manufacturing defects in Russian spaceflight equipment is compounded by the growing failure to catch and repair defects. The problems with two Soyuz passenger capsules in 2018 were not just rare events but part of a trend that has gotten worse. The Soyuz SLV and crew capsule problems also reinforced the belief that more than one nation must be able to get people to and from the ISS.
The SpaceX Dragon passenger capsule had its first test flight in 2019. Boeing also had a manned capsule design (Starliner) but it is more expensive than Dragon, which has already been replaced by Dragon 2, which can be used to carry cargo or up to seven passengers. That means the Soyuz monopoly as a crew transport to ISS ends in 2022 when Dragon 2 begins regular trips to the ISS with passengers. Dragon 2 costs a third less than Soyuz per passenger going to the ISS.
Russians have looked on with growing dismay as their space program, once a close competitor with the Americans, slips into bankruptcy and insignificance. But the Russians were already falling way behind when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and since then the government has, with increasing frustration, sought to revive Russian space efforts and restore that program to its former fame and glory. The latest major move towards that goal occurred at the end of 2015 when Russia abolished its government federal space agency and transferred all the assets and responsibilities to the newly created Roscosmos. Over the next two years, it became obvious that the problems remained, seemingly beyond solution. To make that failure obvious, by the end of 2017 Russia had fallen to third place, behind the Americans and Chinese in space efforts. This was not a surprise because over the last decade Russian space efforts have struggled to meet military space needs, often at the expense of the more profitable civilian market.
Russia recently made it illegal to publish details of Roscosmos problems without government permission. The ban included the Internet, where the bad news can still be found despite its disappearance from state- controlled media. The latest bad news involves the extent to which the new economic sanctions will prevent Roscosmos from freely importing foreign technology and the declining role Roscosmos plays in supplying commercial SLV services.