Economic disruptions created by the current Russian invasion of Ukraine has accelerated the decline of Roscosmos, the Russian government organization controlling all space program activities, as a major competitor in the SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicle) business of building and successfully launching satellites. Roscosmos did not keep up with new developments in SLV tech and has been in decline since its creation in 2015. Meanwhile the SLV future arrived unexpectedly in the form of SpaceX, a new firm that required no guaranteed government contracts or any government subsidies and did what previous government subsidized firms did but faster and cheaper. This was demonstrated during the first half of 2022, when the partially reusable Falcon 9 SLV launched 26 times, its total for all of 2020. The last three launches were carried out within 36 hours at the end of June. SpaceX carried out six more launches in July, exceeding the 31 achieved in 2021. One of the June launches involved a Falcon 9 booster that had been used 13 times. By June Falcon 9s had been launched 160 times since its introduction in 2012. The innovation was that Falcon 9 booster rockets land under their own power and are refurbished for reuse.
In Russia the situation is less positive. The Russian Space agency Roscosmos became a state monopoly in 2015 when it absorbed the few remaining space program entities it did not already control. Roscosmos was not helped when Russia threatened to cease all cooperation on supporting the ISS (International Space Station), 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. 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. That is not going to happen as Russia recently announced they would end support for and participation in the ISS program by 2024.
Some Roscosmos personnel also oppose the invasion of Ukraine but expressing that openly is now a felony in Russia and thousands of Russians have been arrested for demonstrating their opposition. 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.
Roscosmos has been burdened with corruption and mismanagement since its creation and has had six directors since 2015, with the latest one taking office recently (mid-July).
There have been over 1,900 launches of a Soyuz SLV since 1966 and the success rate has been 98 percent. The failures include 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. Economic sanctions imposed after the Ukraine invasion have caused layoffs and pay cuts for Roscosmos staff. Construction of SLVs and satellites is hampered by the sanctions, which halted the import of key components, especially electronic items. The Russian government has warned Roscosmos that this situation will probably last at least two more years, meaning that Roscosmos will incur annual losses instead of a small profit.
Over the last few years 2020 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 ended in 2022 when Dragon 2 began 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 SLV services.