Russia makes bid to become a space power with Luna-25 mission to the moon
Scientific American recently reported that Russia is making progress on its long-planned-for Luna-25 moon lander. The slight is set to take place in October 2021.
Luna-25 will be the first Russian lunar lander since the mid-1970s. The lander is a joint project with the European space agency. The mission is planned as the beginning of a Russian attempt to jumpstart its space program by joining the rush to the moon.
The fact that Luna-25 is scheduled to launch in about a year proves that Russian leader Vladimir Putin recognizes one essential truth of the 21st century. The world is divided into countries that explore space and countries that don’t matter. Putin, whose reason for living is to restore Russia as a superpower, means for the country that he rules over with the power of a Czar to matter.
Russia has a couple of problems to overcome if it means to use a return to the moon as part of its bid to claw its way back to power and respect.
First, many other countries are shooting for the moon. China has already landed two Chang’e landers on the lunar surface and is planning a sample return mission for later in 2020. China intends to land humans on the moon and establish a base.
Israel and India have attempted moon landings and, even though they have failed, are going to mount second attempts. Israel’s second attempt is a private venture in partnership with a German company.
A private company in Japan called ispace is planning a moon landing with a probe called Hakuto-R in 2022. Hakuto-R will weigh 750 pounds and will have a payload capacity of 66 pounds.
Russia’s main rival remains, as it was during the cold war space race, the United States. President Donald Trump has started the Artemis Project, a plan to expand American power and influence into deep space, starting with a return to the moon with human astronauts in 2024. NASA is sponsoring private moon landings starting next year under the Commercial Lunar Payload Systems program. Probes built by Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic are scheduled to launch in 2021. Masten Space Systems will launch a probe in 2022. All of the landers will carry NASA and commercial payloads and instruments.
The second problem Russia has is a lack of money and a lack of competent, honest management. The budget for Roscosmos has already been cut substantially. Its current budget is the equivalent of $2.4 billion. Russia is losing a revenue stream created by charging for flights on the Soyuz spacecraft to and from the International Space Station (ISS) with the start of commercial American space flights.
Corruption is also a major problem with the Russian space program. Tass reports that the former CEO of the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation Vladimir Solntsev, along with a number of other suspects, have been charged with the misappropriation of $13 million in electronic parts for the ISS. Such instances have become increasingly common in the Russian space program.
Russia thus has an intractable problem. One way to deal with it is to make alliances with other countries. It should come as no surprise that Luna-25 is a joint project with the European Space Agency, something that would have been unthinkable during the glory days of the Soviet Union.
Indeed, considering Russia’s problems with money and management, the smart policy would be to forge alliances with other countries to further space exploration goals. The United States would be a logical partner. The space station partnership has worked for all concerned. NASA is eagerly establishing international alliances for the Artemis return-to-the-moon program.
However, thus far, Russia has spurned America’s outstretched hand, preferring perhaps China as a space partner. Vladimir Putin does not just want to make Russia great again through space, to coin a phrase. Putin wants to show up the Americans and prove once and for all who is the real space power on the planet.
The success of Artemis and support for that program would demonstrate to Russia the folly of this attitude, something those who regard Putin as an enemy should think about.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.