Russia's Space Chief Contests SpaceX's Rocket Prediction

The big guns are coming out.


The battle for space dominance between Russia and the United States has cooled in recent decades, as Russia hasn’t posed a serious threat to dethroning NASA since Apollo 11’s landing on the moon in 1969. But the growth in commercial satellite missions has turned Russia into one of the world’s most dependable satellite launch providers.

That distinction is now under threat by little company called SpaceX. But Russia is fighting back, suggesting its own reusable rockets could save customers more money than SpaceX.

Here’s the thing: the Hawthorne, California-based company, led by tech luminary Elon Musk, is in the midst of a banner year, with zero failed missions and only a few technical snags. Those efforts have helped demonstrate two things: the company has been able to fulfill a pretty rigorous launch schedule that puts missions on a run of every two to three weeks or less; and more importantly, the company’s reusable spaceflight architecture has been resulted in slashed costs. In short, SpaceX’s plans are valid and working.

People in Russia are noticing. The country’s space agency, Roscosmos, is exploring new technologies which could also bring launch costs down. In a new interview posted to the space agency’s website, Roscosmos chief Igor Komarov discussed the agency’s work to develop a new Soyuz 5 rocket which should be less complicated to fly, bringing costs down by as much as 20 percent. Komarov thinks SpaceX will only manage to reduce launch costs between 15 and 20 percent over the next five years with its reusable rockets, which way down from what Komarov says was a target reduction of 50 percent.

SpaceX, for its part, had previously suggested the company could expect launch cost savings of up to 30 percent by reusing the first stage booster of Falcon 9 rockets. It’s unclear from what source Komarov got the 50 percent number, but in any case, a 15 to 20 percent reduction in costs is way low than what the company is striking for.

At the Russian Mission Control Center in Korolev, Russia, then-NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) and Igor Komarov, the head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, photos for a photo in November 2016.


Is Russia correct to be suspicious of SpaceX’s goals? Perhaps — SpaceX is notorious, after all, for not exactly accomplishing everything it sets out to do. Deadlines, man.

Nevertheless, it would probably be in Russia’s best interest to ditch expendable rockets in favor of reusable ones, but it remains to be seen whether Roscosmos will heed current worldwide trends, or dig deeper into older, conventional spaceflight methods.

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