Russia, an Early Space Pioneer, Never Regained Its Lead

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MOSCOW—Russians still brim with pride over being the first nation to send a human into space. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who stunned Americans by circling the Earth in 1961, remains a national hero whose story is taught to Russian schoolchildren.

But ever since the U.S. leapfrogged the Soviet Union by landing a man on the moon 50 years ago this month, Russia has never regained its early lead.

In recent years, launch malfunctions, construction accidents, corruption scandals and a dearth of expertise have compounded what observers say is a deepening crisis in Russia’s space industry.

“It’s hard to imagine that Russia will become a leader in space exploration again,” said Pavel Luzin, a Moscow-based independent space policy and defense expert.

Still, space has remained one of the few areas where cooperation between Russia and the U.S. hasn’t collapsed amid tensions over issues such as the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and allegations that Moscow hacked the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Since shutting down the space shuttle program in 2011, the U.S. has depended on renting rides on Russian Soyuz rockets launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome spaceport in Kazakhstan to get astronauts to the international space station.

This undated photo shows a Russian Vostok rocket on its launcher, the type that sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit around Earth in 1961.


Photo:

Associated Press

But NASA has been vaulting forward on other space projects. It unveiled plans to accelerate human exploration of the moon, such as the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a U.S.-led international project aimed at creating a lunar-orbit space station.

It also is working on the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, a joint effort with the European Space Agency for an interplanetary spacecraft.

Russia has failed to make substantial progress on cosmic projects.

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Moscow’s Angara family of launch vehicles has been under development since 1995 and isn’t expected to become fully operational until the beginning of the 2020s, Mr. Luzin said.

Meanwhile, the maiden voyage of Federation, a new-generation, partially reusable piloted spacecraft, keeps getting pushed back. In general, these projects have faced both financial and technological troubles, experts said.

In light of these setbacks, “everyone understands perfectly well that there can be no race now” between the U.S. and Russia, said Pavel Shubin, a Russian space historian.

And the prospect of landing a man on the moon for the first time is out of Russia’s reach for now, space experts said.

“We don’t have a spacecraft for landing, we don’t have the technologies…we even don’t have a large vehicle for such a mission,” Mr. Luzin said.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment of Apollo 11’s mission to the moon was when the Eagle began its final descent to the lunar surface and the ship’s computer became overloaded. Few were more nervous than the young computer programmer who had written the code for the landing. On the Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary, WSJ sat down with programmer Don Eyles. Photo: Alexander Hotz/WSJ

Vitaly Egorov, a popular Russian blogger about space research, said that while Russia’s space program no longer had an overt goal to compete with NASA, Russian politicians sometimes use the fact that “Americans fly on our engines, fly on our ships…as internal propaganda” aimed at bolstering Russian pride.

Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov exited a Soviet spacecraft in 1965, becoming the first person to walk in space.


Photo:

Associated Press

Representatives from the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, didn’t respond to requests for comment about their views on U.S. space exploration, the alleged rivalry between Washington and Moscow in the space arena, and Russia’s goals.

But overall, the rivalry “is not as important as it was during the Soviet Union,” Mr. Egorov said.

But senior Russian officials have made clear that the former space superpower isn’t ready to give up its ambitions to restore its cosmic dominance.

In June, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told senior government officials that, as a pioneer in space, Russia needs to restore its leadership.

“This is not only a matter of prestige, but also a matter of national security,” he said.

In 1976 in a warehouse in Texas, Jimmie Loocke bought two tons of scrapped NASA equipment. Years later he realized it included a computer from an Apollo lunar module, like the one used to guide the lander to the surface of the moon during Apollo 11. Fifty years after that mission, computer restoration experts in Silicon Valley are trying to get his computer working again.

Mr. Medvedev criticized the space agency for using its funds inefficiently. Although the government allocated around 260 billion rubles ($4.13 billion) for space projects in 2019—most of which went to Roscosmos—the agency had so far used less than a quarter of the money, he said. Government contracts for manned space flights hadn’t been executed and launch dates for the deployment and operation of the Russian segment of the international space station were constantly being shifted, he added.

Before the end of the year, the Russian space agency was expected to receive an additional 200 billion rubles ($3.17 billion), according to Mr. Medvedev. Since the government was “heavily investing in space exploration” it expected returns, he said.

In comparison, NASA’s budget for fiscal 2019 is $21.5 billion.

Russia’s Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft carried two U.S. astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut to the international space station this past March. The U.S. has relied on Russian rockets to travel to and from the space station since the space shuttle program ended.


Photo:

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

The misuse and mismanagement of funds has been a sore spot for Russia’s space agency.

In May, Russian federal investigators said that billions of rubles had been siphoned out of Roscosmos over the past five years in corruption schemes, and in 2018 prosecutors said they uncovered around $1 billion in fraud involving Russian state-run space and defense corporations.

Also threatening the space agency’s financing is the fact it heavily relies on the money it makes from transporting U.S. astronauts—around $80 million per astronaut, according to Mr. Luzin, the space expert.

But that lucrative deal is expected to dry up. The recent successful launch of technology entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX passenger spacecraft to the international space station could mean that soon the Soyuz won’t be the only ride on the block.

The progress in U.S. space development has spurred some jealousy in Russia and added to a narrative some Russian officials are pushing in an attempt to dilute America’s success in space. For example, conspiracy theories cast doubt on whether Neil Armstrong really did make “one giant leap for mankind” by landing on the moon.

This cartoon, in a 1962 issue of the Russian government newspaper Izvestia, depicted two Soviet cosmonauts in flight with a dejected figure at lower left representing the U.S. A caption under the cartoon said, ‘Even his compass won’t help him. Where is the West?’


Photo:

Associated Press

Leading the charge is Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the Russian Parliament’s Upper House Committee for Information Policy, who has been pushing the so-called Moon Hoax, based in part on images the astronauts sent back.

“The ‘moon’, where the flag sways in the wind…and in the sky, not a single star,” Mr. Pushkov tweeted in 2017.

U.S. space historians and experts say the anomalies can be explained. The American flag was mounted on a horizontal rod to allow it to stick out from the flagpole, but the astronauts had trouble fully extending it and bent it, and this made the flag’s material appear to flutter, though there is no wind on the moon. The seeming absence of stars was because the sunlight reflecting off the moon’s surface made it too bright to see the stars, they said.

Apollo 11, 50 Years Later

Last November, Dmitry Rogozin, who heads Roscosmos, said a proposed Russian mission to the moon would seek to verify whether the U.S. moon landings were real, although the smirk and shrug Mr. Rogozin gave while making the remarks made it appear he was joking.

NASA spokesman Sean Potter said there is “a significant amount of evidence” to support the U.S.’s moon landings, including the 842 pounds of lunar rocks astronauts collected that were studied for decades by scientists world-wide, plus the fact that it is possible to bounce Earth-based lasers off retroreflector mirrors the Apollo astronauts placed on the moon’s surface. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter imaged the landing sites in 2011. He added that all the Apollo missions were independently tracked by the Soviet Union, and Moscow “would not have sent NASA a letter of congratulations if the landings never happened.”

That isn’t to say many Russians haven’t bought into the moon hoax. Last year, a poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center found that 57% of Russians believe Americans didn’t fly to the moon. Mr. Egorov said the percentage of doubters had risen from around 40% almost a decade ago. It reflects the current rhetoric being promoted by some government officials “that Americans are bad, Americans are deceitful,” Mr. Egorov said.

Russia doesn’t envy the fact that the U.S. landed on the moon, Mr. Shubin said. “There is more bitterness that we have not fulfilled our own program. If the United States begins to fly to the moon [again], and we cannot respond, it doesn’t look good politically,” he said.

Write to Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications
The U.S. shut down its space-shuttle program in 2011. An earlier version of this article incorrectly gave the year as 2001. (July 19, 2019)

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