After Sir Richard Branson’s spaceflight this weekend, the leader of Russia’s main space corporation, Roscosmos, offered some kind words about the achievement on Twitter. Dmitry Rogozin called the flight a “landmark” in terms of technology development and expanding the number of humans able to see Earth from space.
Then Rogozin went a step further, lamenting the fact that Russia’s “billionaire oligarchs” spend their money on yachts and vanity projects rather than the development of space technology and increasing humanity’s knowledge of space.
This is a notable comment from Rogozin, who in the past has been critical of one particular billionaire spending his money developing space technology: SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Among other remarks, Rogozin has said that NASA should not get too cocky about its newfound access to space in case SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle “breaks.” He has also said that SpaceX is “gentle” for getting to work in the balmy conditions of South Texas, while Russian engineers and technicians work in the depths of Siberia during the winter.
Now, however, Rogozin appears to see value in private investment in space—and the value a commercial space industry holds for a country’s overall spaceflight enterprise.
Effectively, Roscosmos represents the national space corporation in Russia after its space industry was nationalized. It leads the Soyuz and Proton launch programs and the research, development, and management of spaceports. Historically, however, it has been less than welcoming of commercial space activities that might compete with Roscosmos itself.
An analysis of the commercial space industry, published in Spacewatch Global, essentially concluded that Roscosmos is struggling to remain afloat economically, and it has no means of supporting an entrepreneur-driven space industry: “The current priority of the Russian space program is retaining its heritage capabilities, which prevents it from developing to its true potential as there is insufficient motivation to justify funding bigger projects.”
There has also been criticism of Rogozin and other Russian space leaders for not creating conditions in which commercial space companies might thrive. This includes not only a lack of contracts on offer but also access to facilities and other incentives.
For example, after the S7 Group acquired the Sea Launch command ship and launch platform in 2016, the company moved them to a Russian port near Vladivostok. The Russian company was told that the conditions for keeping the vessels in Russia—and preparing the platform for future launches—would be as good as those in Long Beach, California, where the two vessels had previously been stored. But from a financial perspective, the conditions turned out to be “twice as bad,” according to S7 owner Vladislav Filev, due to port infrastructure and parking costs in Russia.
The poor environment for commercial space activities has led some Russians, such as Momentus founder Mikhail Kokorich, to leave Russia and invest in the US space industry. So while Rogozin’s newfound praise for private investment in space is significant, it seems to have come rather late in the game.