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The successful launch of the first manned flight by the American company SpaceX, on Saturday, ends a monopoly held by Russia since 2011.
End of monopoly: after the theft of the American private group SpaceX, the Russians are no longer the only ones to send cosmonauts to the ISS, a reality that should push the Russian space program to reinvent itself, experts say .
Leaving Saturday from Florida with two astronauts, the new SpaceX capsule is due to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday after a 19-hour flight.
This mission is a first since the stop in 2011 of American shuttle flights to the ISS, leaving the safer and cheaper Russian Soyuz rockets the exclusive preserve for manned flights.
For nine years, the ISS residents therefore all left the Baikonur Cosmodrome, after having trained in Russia and learned the Pushkin language.
A good player, the Russian space agency Roskosmos “welcomed” the launch of the SpaceX rocket, its executive director for human spaceflight, Sergei Krikaliov, saying that “the success of this mission will bring us new opportunities”.
A “significant” annual loss for Roskosmos
However, the blow is hard. “These flights were an unexpected chance for Moscow to continue its production of Soyuz and maintain a weight in the negotiations on the ISS,” said Isabelle Sourbès-Verger, CNRS researcher, specialist in space policies.
The Russian space agency Roscosmos also benefited financially, charging NASA each seat to the ISS for about $ 80 million.
If SpaceX now transports American astronauts, “the annual loss could exceed 200 million dollars, a significant sum for Roskosmos and its budget of approximately two billion dollars”, calculates Andreï Ionine, expert at the Tsiolkovski Space Academy of Moscow .
While SpaceX’s ambitious boss Elon Musk says he charges $ 60 million instead, Roscosmos chief executive Dmitri Rogozine has announced that he is trying to cut prices by 30%.
“SpaceX saves money by using cheap engines and producing almost all of its parts. In Russia, this would require changing the production process, ”comments skeptical Andrei Ionin.
Alternatively, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine mentioned a form of barter: for every Russian flying on an American rocket, an American would fly on a Russian rocket.
Beyond these questions, the arrival of SpaceX should serve as a “wake-up call” for a Russian space sector “in a much worse situation than what the leaders admit,” said Ionin.
If ten years ago Moscow carried out the majority of orbital launches, this is no longer the case today, against the Chinese rockets and those of SpaceX.
“When we lost the launch market, Roscosmos said that everything was fine because we were the only ones to take people to the Station. Now this leaf has fallen, ”says Andreï Ionine.
The sector is still weakened by corruption, as evidenced by the scandals surrounding the construction of the new Vostochny cosmodrome in the Far East.
In addition, for lack of means and of real political will, he does not innovate. The Russian program focuses on perfecting “Soviet technologies”, recalls Andreï Ionine. However, the rise of private companies like SpaceX, which aims to conquer Mars, promises a technological leap that is difficult to catch up with.
To remain in the running, Andreï Ionine recommends the definition of a strategy by a body independent of the actors of the Russian space sector. “President Trump has re-established a body, the National Space Council, to set these political goals. We would need the same thing, ”says Andreï Ionine.
Observers note, however, a lack of will on the part of President Vladimir Putin, visibly more focused on the development of military capabilities, in particular high-tech hypersonic missiles. “For Putin, cosmonautics is not a priority to demonstrate the power of the state,” said specialist journalist Vitali Egorov.
According to Andreï Ionine, the salvation of the Russian space program therefore requires international cooperation.
While the ISS is reaching the end of its life and its shutdown is regularly mentioned, Isabelle Sourbès-Verger assumes that an international mission to Mars “would be an opportunity for Russia to regain its rank”, thanks to its heavy launchers and its considerable experience.
“But the costs of such a manned mission are enormous and no one takes political decisions,” she said, adding that Beijing, now the second space power in terms of launches, should also be integrated. “However, the US Congress still refuses any space cooperation with China …”.