The New U.S.-Russia Space Race Has Begun (But Moscow May Be Bluffing)

David Axe

Russia's space agency has approved the blueprints for the country’s most powerful rocket since the 1960s space race, a 246-foot-tall monster packing 10 separate engines in five stages.

It’s the First Orbiting Garbage Collector—or a New Kind of Space Weapon

In theory, the new Yenisei rocket, named for a river in central Russia, could boost cosmonauts vast distances, allowing Russia to plan independent missions to the Moon. With Yenisei, the Russians could compete with the Americans in a new wave of space exploration.

The idea behind the Yenisei program is to develop a rocket capable of slinging manned capsules the quarter-million miles to the Moon or to a space station orbiting the Moon. The same rocket could also carry extremely heavy satellites weighing 80 tons or more and place them in orbit around Earth.

Russia’s current rockets aren’t up to the task. The Proton rocket, Russia’s most powerful at the moment, can carry just 25 tons to low Earth orbit. While Proton is roughly equivalent to America’s biggest operational rocket, the Delta Falcon Heavy, the Americans are working on a much, much more powerful launch vehicle, one that matches the lifting power of the now-retired Saturn V that shot astronauts to the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  

There is some question about whether Russia’s Roscosmos space agency actually will build the Yenisei. The potential $22 billion price tag, as well as Moscow’s long history of overpromising when it comes to new space technology, bode poorly for its prospects.

It’s also possible the Russian government just wants the Yenisei program for leverage in high-stakes negotiations with the United States over the future of U.S.-Russian collaboration in space. 

“Work with us on future lunar missions,” Moscow could be saying to the Americans, “or we’ll just ride our new Yenisei rockets to the Moon all by ourselves.”

“Russia needs Yenisei for continuation of the cooperation, for the bargaining with Americans in space,” Pavel Luzin, a space expert at Perm University in Russia, told The Daily Beast.

After several years of study, Roscosmos officially launched the Yenisei program in 2018. In late December 2019 Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin signed off on the rocket’s design. Rogozin tapped his deputy, Alexander Lopatin, to oversee Yenisei’s continuing development, with the goal of launching the rocket for the first time in 2028.

In the United States, NASA is taking old Space Shuttle engines and adding them four apiece to a new rocket body for the new Space Launch System. In its ultimate form, the SLS could haul 130 tons up to low Earth orbit or speed an Orion capsule and its crew all the way to a new lunar space station NASA is trying to build.

SLS is slated to launch on its first test flight some time in 2020. If the test is successful, SLS would join NASA’s crash effort to return astronauts to the Moon in 2024, near the end of President Donald Trump’s possible second term. 

But NASA’s new Moon mission is far from a sure thing. Experts estimate it could cost $30 billion on top of the roughly $20 billion Congress usually gives NASA every year. For the 2020 budget, lawmakers approved just $600 million of the $1 billion downpayment the space agency wanted for the lunar mission.

Even if NASA does get the money, the schedule for a return to the Moon by 2024 is so tight that it allows for no problems with a wide range of new equipment, including the Orion crew capsule, a new lunar lander and the SLS. 

“Everything has to work perfectly,” says John Logsdon, a professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a former NASA adviser.

As risky as the U.S. Moon mission is, Russia wants to be a part of it in the same way that Russian rockets, capsules and cosmonauts are critical contributors to the International Space Station. And in light of its rich experience in space and its vast inventory of reliable old rockets and capsules, Moscow has demanded preferential treatment in the American Moon enterprise. 

That could mean lucrative contracts, reserved space on the lunar station and a big say in what explorers do when they set foot on the Moon for the first time since the last Apollo mission in 1972. 

NASA Mission to Space Station Goes Horribly Wrong

NASA thus far has rejected the Russian demands. The U.S. space agency stated that its lead role on the Moon mission should "allow the United States to set 'rules of road' for activities in space." Roscosmos did not respond in time for this story.

In developing, or threatening to develop, the powerful Yenisei, Moscow apparently is betting that the United States would rather work with Russia than against Russia when (or if) human explorers start heading back to the Moon in coming years.

But NASA could call Roscosmos’s bluff. 

“They have a whole track record of not delivering on things they say they’re going to do,” Logsdon said of the Russian space agency. Yenisei “will require a lot of money Russia doesn’t have and a priority on deep space exploration which is at least arguable.” 

Logsdon pointed to two previous Russian efforts to develop super-heavy rockets, both of which failed. 

It’s worth noting that, besides vowing to build a huge new rocket, Roscosmos has not detailed how it actually would complete a new Moon mission all on its own. There’s been very little discussion of capsules, landers or lunar stations. “Russia just does not have any experience here,” Luzin said. If Yenisei is a bluff, it’s a weirdly weak one.

So the Yenisei program blasts into an uncertain future, betting on a powerful new rocket that could carry cosmonauts to the Moon or force the Americans to invite the Russians to join the United States’ own lunar missions. Or, it could fail as a bluff and as an actual rocket, thus grounding Russia’s proud cosmonauts while America’s own space explorers shoot for the Moon without them.

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