What should be the optimal strategy for further space exploration? What are the goals? Resumption of manned flights to the Moon? Manned flight to Mars? Undoubtedly, this will push technological progress forward. It will undoubtedly be very expensive. And there’s no doubt it will be a vanity fair again, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
Space exploration has already become familiar to mankind. 2021 was a landmark year in this regard. April 12 marked the 60th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight — the first manned flight into space. This event is important not only in itself, but also as an event which dominates historical memory in modern Russia. Now, in November, we observe the 21st anniversary of the first “numbered” permanent expedition to the International Space Station. However, we talk now about its imminent closure and the transition to something new. So there will probably no longer be anniversaries at the ISS.
Beyond these historic dates, 2021 was a real breakthrough year in private, commercial space travel. Here, on the one hand, we observed a semblance of an “arms race” between several Western billionaires (Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson), each of whom actively promoted their projects. On the other hand, this race has become almost a vanity fair over who would be the first to launch their private crew. As soon as Jeff Bezos announced the first manned suborbital flight of his New Shepard spacecraft on July 20, 2021, Richard Branson announced that his suborbital spaceplane Virgin Galactic Unity would fly with de facto private passengers earlier — on 11 July. Both flights took place on schedule, and so on. Branson was the first.
It should be noted here that Virgin Galactic had already launched spaceplanes before, but only with pilots flying them (once, in 2019, in addition to the pilots, the de facto passenger was the chief of Virgin Galactic, who is responsible for “working with astronauts”). Now, for the first time, in addition to two pilots, Branson’s spaceplane had four de facto passengers — all the chiefs of Virgin Galactic (although de jure they all performed some functions, studying the spaceplane in flight). Watching how, during the live broadcast, the whole four happily tumbled in weightlessness in those few minutes when the spaceplane was out of the Earth’s gravity zone, one involuntarily thinks that apparently this was their real tasks in flight.
This question, however, is very important. The US government regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration, has been awarding the official Commercial Astronaut title for a couple of decades now for space flights unrelated to NASA’s government programmes. But earlier this title was awarded to spaceplane pilots who did the real work to control them. Whether this title will be awarded to passengers remains a question. Therefore, the definition of certain flight missions for each de facto passenger, although ironic, has its own reasons. It is clear that these reasons are also from a vanity fair. In the meantime, both Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Bezos’ Blue Origin have issued their corporate astronaut badges to everyone who flew.
While Bezos flew second, unlike Branson, he exceeded the international space limit of 100 kilometers, determined by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). Branson, in his spaceplane, did not reach this height, only crossing the 50-mile (80 kilometers) threshold, defined as the border of space only in the United States and NASA. In addition, if the de facto passengers of Branson, as it was noted, were all high-ranking officials of his company, then Bezos did differently. He took his brother on the flight and sold one place at auction for $28 million. Then there was a vague story about how the winner of the auction decided to postpone his flight, and instead of him an 18-year-old Dutch student flew, making him the youngest man to travel to space in history; it is not clear from the press releases, however, whether his father had paid for this flight. But the most positive thing about Bezos’ choice of a crew was the offer of the fourth place to 82-year-old American pilot Wally Funk, who at the turn of the 1950-60s was part of the control female pilot group, which during pre-flight tests by NASA was compared with male candidates for space flight. None of these women would fly except Funk, in 2021, (by that time only one other participant in those tests remained alive). This gesture of Bezos quite justifiably served to symbolise a restoration of historical justice and the overcoming of discrimination against women in space. So, in terms of the composition of de facto passengers, Bezos looked more positive than Branson. In October 2021, Bezos launched his New Shepard on a second flight with de facto passengers (“rich and famous”). Branson also announced a global free lottery, the winner of which will receive two seats for the next flight. This lottery, judging by the social networks, is quite popular throughout the world, it can be already PR-positive in favour of Branson.
However, in the fall of 2021, both Branson and Bezos were overtaken — by Elon Musk. His Crew Dragon spacecraft, unlike the ships of Bezos and Brunson, is capable of performing orbital flight, and since 2020 has already been used to deliver crews to the International Space Station. But in September 2021, Musk’s spacecraft was used for the first time on a fully private three-day orbital flight, led by billionaire Jared Isaacman, and none of the four members had passed before the training schedule for space flight. The difference between three minutes and three days in zero gravity is quite obvious, and now the upper hand in private flights, undoubtedly, belongs to Musk.
The general moral of all of the above is as follows. On the one hand, it’s good when there are billionaires in the world who build spaceships rather than buy yachts and football clubs. This undoubtedly moves forward both the space industry and the global public interest in space. On the other hand, the vanity fair surrounding this new space race is also quite evident. In addition, the private flight race has reduced the heroic halo that has traditionally developed around astronauts, that they are absolutely special super-people who have gone through years of hard training and have withstood fire and water. Now it is clear that if you have a lot of money or if you are lucky (either in the lottery, or for some humanitarian reason), then space is open to you without any special training. Against this background, Gagarin’s halo fades indeed.
Yes, there have been space tourists before. Roskosmos in 2001-09 sent seven people into space for money (one person took the trip twice). High-ranking officials (an American senator and a former Russian presidential aide) also flew into space for political reasons. But one way or another, they all went through the standard (hopefully) pre-flight training. But now, private space is becoming fundamentally more open. It is clear that so far this privilege will be reserved for those who have a lot of money, but over time the situation will change. In this context, one should also take into account that in the fall of 2021 Russia sent an actress and filmmaker into space to shoot a movie. On the other hand, both the first airplane pilots and the first steam locomotive drivers were also perceived almost as fairy-tale heroes. Only the very wealthy could afford to fly as a passenger. And then aviation became widespread. The year 2021 became a belweather for outer space eventually yielding to the masses. And after all, no one now maintains a list of those who flew on airplanes. There are many millions, if not billions of them. And the lists of astronauts (in the context of the above efforts to be included in the official list of commercial astronauts) may one day stop filling up.
In this context, an important question is: what should be the optimal strategy for further space exploration? What are the goals? Resumption of manned flights to the Moon? Manned flight to Mars? Undoubtedly, this will push technological progress forward. It will undoubtedly be very expensive. And there’s no doubt it will be a vanity fair again. In this context, the question is not so banal whether Russia needs to set ambitious new goals for space. This dilemma — technical progress and national pride versus high cost and vanity fair — is not so easy to answer unequivocally. Will the first person on Mars be a Russian or a foreigner? Is it so important for our society? Gagarin turned out to be very important in the politics of historical memory. But is this factor significant now for Mars?
In the context of choosing future strategies, we must also acknowledge the patronising and condescending attitudes towards the modern space projects of large developing countries (primarily China and India), which can sometimes be observed in Russia. For all the significance and scale of the Chinese space programme, everyone in Russia understands that what the Chinese were doing in space in the 2000s-10s, we did long ago in the 1960s-70s during the Soviet period. The first manned flight, the first space station, the first woman in orbit — all these modern successes of Chinese space exploration — for a post-Soviet observer seem to be nothing more than a reproduction of our 50-year-old programme. The fact stands that Chinese spaceships look remarkably similar to Soviet ones, and several Russian citizens have been convicted of treason for transferring space technologies to the Chinese. This allows many to treat the Chinese space programme as a simple copy of vintage, 50-year-old Soviet projects. The same applies to the Chinese and Indian exploration of the Moon — their lunar rovers, while called something else, have tried to plow its expanses with varying degrees of success in recent years. But our Soviet lunar rover did this 50 years ago — in 1970. Therefore, let them copy and plow, nothing special.
The only point is that having started their space programmes 50 years later than Russia, these and other countries can quickly catch up with us and come out ahead. Will this be perceived by us only as a vanity fair? Something tells me no. The era of the International Space Station is likely to end in a few years. The era of new projects will begin. The Americans, along with a number of other countries, are already forming a new space agreement, so-called “Artemis”, aimed at a free future commercial exploitation of the resources of the Moon and other stellar bodies. The experts of the Valdai Club have already written about the legal ambivalence of this agreement. Will Russia join this new space race, very expensive and undoubtedly ambitious? Or is all that will remain with us is the memory of Gagarin?