Not a Special Case

Scientist Andrei Ionin on the topic of the prospects of the Russian and American space industries.

On March 28, U.S. President Joe Biden announced the fiscal year 2023 budget. According to this document, NASA could receive about $26 billion for research, studying Earth and developing space technologies. The project also involves allocating $822 million to the mission of retrieving soil samples from Mars. Apart from that, the budget projection includes $480 million for robotic Moon missions. As per the words of the NASA Administrator Bill Nelson (an old Senate colleague of Biden’s and a fellow golf enthusiast), NASA is planning to land astronauts on Mars by 2040.

To promise to do something by 2040 in the U.S. reality means practically never. Projects of such tremendous magnitude as the Mars mission, requiring technological breakthroughs, colossal investments spanning decades and political commitment, have to have certain beneficiaries. American space projects have a shelf life of no more than eight years — exactly two presidential terms. For example, the Moon project started in 1961 under John F. Kennedy. The orbiting of the Moon happened in 1968 (Kennedy’s course was supported after his assassination by Lyndon B. Johnson, also a Democrat). The current U.S. Moon project, Artemis, started under Donald Trump, involved landing the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon by 2024 — the year Trump’s second presidential term would have ended.

Today, even Biden’s second term of office seems like a pseudo-science fiction story. Hence, the Mars and the year 2040 statements from the NASA administrator are no more than self-promotion and useless babble.

Furthermore, I cannot see a single person in the U.S. administration as of the present day who is interested in a large-scale space project. Most of Biden’s team consists of people who were “inherited” from Barack Obama’s presidency. He, in turn, pulled this trick 12 years ago: He claimed that the Moon program of his predecessor, George W. Bush, was “unambitious” and put forward his own “breakthrough” program — a flight to Mars. And deep space was de facto forgotten in the U.S. for eight years, since nothing worthy of a breakthrough was done during those years.

On the contrary, the Trump administration had people betting on the space industry. And not just anybody, but Trump himself and his vice president, Mike Pence, who was quite zealous during his four years chairing the National Space Council. There is no doubt that Trump will remind Biden of that Obama trick: If he had remained in office, the Americans would be landing on the Moon in two or three years, and now the U.S. space program is in hibernation.

It’s also clear that the International Space Station project is coming to an end — not “after 2030” as the Americans are suggesting, but in 2024, as was agreed upon earlier by all sides of the project; in the current reality of sanctions, Roscosmos has no reason to agree to NASA’s offer. And then the U.S., it appears, will have no space station of its own for at least several years. The Biden administration doesn’t have any time for the Moon. I can’t imagine the current vice president, Kamala Harris, chairing the National Space Council — my imagination doesn’t go that wild. I also don’t really believe in those commercial space stations, for which NASA is generously allocating government grants for them to be built by 2030. We’ve seen some ambitious presentations of U.S. developers, but there’s no trace of their business models, as opposed to space internet projects such as Starlink or remote sensing, where the business models are transparent and clear. Such withholding of information is alarming; building and operating a manned space station costs a significant amount of money (building the ISS cost more than $120 billion, with an annual operating cost of $5 billion), but it’s unclear how one would profit from it.

Given the expiration of the ISS project by 2024, Russia will also face a difficult situation with its manned space flight program. But there are ways of tackling it, and we need to prepare for them now. Our partner, China, already has its own space station; we could at least deliver personnel there on Chinese spacecrafts from Chinese spaceports (we cannot possibly reach such orbital inclination with spacecrafts launched from Russian spaceports). We urgently need to design and build our own national space station — compact, designed to accommodate astronauts, modular (which could be modified and expanded). Its main mission would be the implementation of programs related to national security. Manned space is also the best field for developing partnerships and cooperating with our strategic partners — the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS*. Many of them have ambitions in space, yet no competence. We have to give them a helping hand. Perhaps we will in some respects repeat the same program as the ISS, but we have a different goal: our space partners should remain partners back on Earth too.

One last thing. We have to note that the only possible beneficiary of deep space exploration, including Mars and the Moon, is all of humanity, not separate countries, even the most “entitled” ones. As such, a project planned for several decades, such as the Mars mission, only has a chance to succeed when its implementation is handled by an organization with the longest investment horizons that represents all of humanity or a major part of it. BRICS, for example, represents almost 50% of humanity, or the U.N. — 100% of humanity.

Manned space, especially when it comes to deep space, is about goals for humanity, which in turn means it’s about government money. Of course, private investments are perhaps welcome, the leader of the program could be a businessperson, like we have now, who pulls everyone else forward. But there is no entrepreneurship in deep space, and there will not be any for decades more. It’s beyond a businessperson’s power, even Elon Musk’s, to achieve the technological breakthroughs necessary to reach deep space — for example, to combine nuclear and space technologies, creating a powerful nuclear plant that could work in the deep space environment safely for many years. He can’t do it simply because not a single businessperson in the world would be allowed to possess such double technologies.

Manned space research is not an arena for a battle of national ambitions, nor is it a Klondike for those thirsting for profit; it is instead our common path to solutions to the problems of humanity.

*Editor’s Note: BRICS is an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

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About Artem Belov 81 Articles
Artem Belov is a TESOL-certified English teacher and a freelance translator (Russian>English and English>Russian) based in Australia but currently traveling abroad. He is working on a number of projects, including game localization. You can reach him at

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