The budget process of the Russian space program is not particularly transparent to outsiders, but it seems that Roscosmos will face budget cuts in the coming years. According to Sputnika Russian government-controlled news agency, state-owned Roscosmos is likely to face funding shortfalls of 150 billion rubles (more than $2 billion) over the next three years, from 2019 to 2021.
The ramifications of these cuts could be serious for Russia’s much vaunted launch industry. In particular, the reduced budget could prevent a rocket development project intended to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and a new super-heavy lift booster.
An expert observer of the Russian space program, Ivan Moiseev, the scientific leader of the Russian Space Policy Institute, says this is the case. Cuts in the Roscosmos budget will make it impossible to develop the new Soyuz-5 medium booster, the Falcon 9 competitor, as well as jeopardize the further development of a heavy variant of the Russian Angara missile.
“You can say that the current plan for an ultra-heavy booster is not necessary because there is no payload or mission for it, and even the concept design has already cost a billion (rubles),” Moiseev told the Russian publication Lenta.RU. “In addition, the development of new boosters is questionable from a practical point of view, because the number of payloads that we (Russia) will loft is quite well known and it is not growing stably.”
(A translation of this article, originally published in Russian, was provided to Ars by Robinson Mitchell, a former Air Force cryptologic analyst in the Air Force.)
Russia recently completed preliminary design work on the Soyuz-5 rocket, a medium-duty booster, with a first stage powered by RD-171 engines that will burn kerosene fuel. This new efficient booster, Russian officials said, could replace the existing Soyuz rocket that takes cosmonauts and astronauts into space while competing with SpaceX on the price for commercial payloads.
If fully funded, the Soyuz-5 could be ready for use in 2022, but budget cuts will preclude that, Moiseev said. Delays in the project will likely prove fatal, as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is likely to see lower costs over time as the company continues to improve the booster’s reusability. In other words, even if the Soyuz 5 rocket is now competitive on paper with the Falcon 9, it is unlikely to be so in four years’ time.
As for the heavier Angara missile, Moiseev said there is little need to build the larger missile at this point because Russia does not have a specific payload for it. “We only need to build the new booster if there is a specific mission to launch something that the older boosters can’t lift,” Moiseev said. Indeed, the looming budget cuts indicate that such missions cannot be funded by themselves at the moment.
The biggest space news from Russia in recent weeks has been confirmation that former Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who was critical of NASA and sanctioned by the United States, will now head Roscosmos. Very soon he will have to face these budgetary problems and probably make decisions about the development of Russian missiles. He will have to be creative, like Vladimir Putin has done just said“We need to restore our leadership in space launches.”