Will Russian Space Plans be Derailed By the Olympics?

Over at Technology Review, Anatoly Zak reports that Russia’s ambitious plan to replace the Soyuz rocket and spacecraft later this decade could be derailed by funding issues:

While the official schedule calls for the first launch of the brand-new Rus-M rocket from the yet-to-be built Vostochny Cosmodrome in 2015, and the first manned mission from this site in 2018, many industry experts consider this timeline wildly unrealistic. In a run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, the country may have to choose between multibillion-dollar investments in Sochi Olympic facilities or in the new space center. These experts believe that the current Russian strategy could push back the birth date of the Soyuz replacement by years, if not a decade. Critics point to the ongoing development of the Angara family of rockets, which was initiated at the beginning of the 1990s and has perpetually remained several years away from its maiden mission.

In the meantime, RKK Energia has watched nervously as several modestly priced commercial ventures for carrying astronauts into space have been fostered by NASA. Seeing the emergence of these “private” spacecraft as competition, RKK Energia has come up with its own fast-track strategy, one that would bypass the Russian space agency’s grand space plan. The company has proposed to fly a streamlined 12-ton version of the new-generation manned spacecraft onboard an off-the-shelf Zenit rocket, from an existing launchpad in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

Roscosmos has resisted the plan thus far. Whatever the Russians end up doing, they will be able to partially fund it through the windfall they are getting from crew transport fees paid by NASA, which is running years late on fielding a replacement for the space shuttle.

It’s interesting to see how developments in the United States are influencing plans overseas. It would be a shame if Congress ends up throttling NASA’s commercial crew program by underfunding it while the Russians adopt the idea for their own and create unwanted competition.