Russia Responds to Musk & His Reusable Boosters

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks over plans for Vostochny. (Credit: Roscosmos)

The age of reusable liquid boosters arrived with the launch last week of a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage, which landed on a barge ship after its fuel was exhausted. In Russia, the long anticipated milestone resulted in a flood of statements — official and otherwise — about what the long-term leader in space boosters is doing in response.

From the Kremlin came reassurance that President Vladimir Putin and his space team were on top of things.

“The Kremlin and the agencies concerned keep a close watch on technological breakthroughs. Our space industry specialists will keep the development of such technologies in mind,” presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the media.

Rocosmos boss Igor Komarov reassured the public that his organization, which the entire Russian space program, was working hard at keeping up with the Musks.

“We are running pilot projects in the sphere of retrievable components. Speaking of components, we have engines which can work a multiple number of times, for example Engine 191 and the engine for Angara [rocket]. We will also be using the potential of retrievable rocket components,” he told journalists on Friday.

Komarov sincerely congratulated Musk and SpaceX on the achievement, calling the flight “a very important step” in advancing rocket technology. He said SpaceX’s success was spurring innovation in Russia.

Although Roscosmos is working on retrievable rocket components, the space corporation is not focused on a reusable first stage, Roscosmos spokesman Igor Burenkov said.

“Reusability is a chiefly economic matter, so we should make a profound feasibility study. Actually, we have neither forgotten nor neglected this area, and Khrunichev Center continues its research. However, this is not today’s priority,” Burenkov told the Echo of Moscow radio in an interview, speaking of the reused stage of a Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

Roscosmos is focused “on preserving and enlarging the Russian satellite cluster, creating new launch vehicles, and developing new engines,” he said.

Ivan Moiseyev, a research adviser at the Space Policy Institute, noted how SpaceX has disrupted the space launch industry.

“Just a few years ago, the market was divided between Europe and Russia whereas today the situation has changed drastically – the company SpaceX has taken up Russia’s place. If there are no accidents, the plans of Falcon-9 launches this year will be comparable with all Russian launches. This is quite a commercially strong blow on our commercial cosmonautics,” the expert said.

Russia’s State Space Corporation Roscosmos is responding to the challenges with available possibilities, he added.

“It has announced a considerable reduction in the cost of Proton rocket launches. The commercial price of this rocket’s launch is considerably higher than its prime cost and we have the potential for the price cut. But customers are giving up our services because the number of payloads [satellites] remains unchanged and does not grow. Correspondingly, a new player on the market snatches away a part of orders,” the expert noted.

Plans to develop Proton-Light and Proton-Medium carrier rockets better adapted to market demand are another measure taken by Roscosmos, he said….

In turn, Ionin noted that the competitive price of Russian carrier rockets is not $100 million or $80 million but is $50 million, i.e. the price of a Falcon-9 rocket minus 20%.

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  • “In turn, Ionin noted that the competitive price of Russian
    carrier rockets is not $100 million or $80 million but is $50 million,
    i.e. the price of a Falcon-9 rocket minus 20%”

    This is an interesting comment. I was under the impression that ILS was trying to push Proton cost below $100M. Not sure where that $50M quote applies (is this for the new light/medium variants)?

  • Albinas Bambukas

    Maybe he was talking about Soyuz? “Russian carrier rockets” is not very specific, so it might be any Russian rocket. Though, in this context, the rocket(s) in mind should be comparable to Falcon 9 in performance. Hard to believe $50M for a Proton price tag.

  • Kapitalist

    I’ve seen such hard to believe costs for the Proton before. I think it can be possible because it is all made in Russia, so the difference in purchasing power parity of a dollar here and there makes a big difference. (And I suppose there’s alot of political internal pricing between government space companies that do not reflect real costs).

    Russia could use imported technologies and specialize (on HSF and rocket engines) rather than trying to do everything in-house. And they will have to compete with foreign space engineers’ salaries to avoid brain drain. Especially if they seriously want to realize any of the many very ambitions space projects they keep talking about without anything ever becoming operational. So this kind of cost competition is not sustainable in the long run, it cannot keep up with world leading technology developments without participating in (including importing) such technology and then bye bye to today’s Russian cost leadership.

  • duheagle

    For Russian space, winter is coming.

  • JamesG

    In Russia it’s always winter.

  • Starfyre

    A suggestion I’ve seen floated before is intentional russian subsidy of their proton rockets to try and strangle spacex in the cradle. I haven’t seen anything solid to back it up, but russian spaceflight finances are opaque at best and that sort of attempt to undercut a competitor before going back to business as usual makes some sense.

  • duheagle

    It is now.

  • duheagle

    This old lefty meme of undercutting a competitor by taking a temporary loss always seems to be short on real world exemplars. Where and when has this ever actually happened?

    The Russians are, in any event, in no shape to try any such thing. SpaceX enjoys very generous gross margins and could outlast any discount-led pissing contest the Russians care to get into.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Russia, Ariane, ULA…it seems that in the space launch business, denial is the sincerest form of flattery.

  • publiusr

    They brought this all on themselves. Wasn’t Musk with Mike Griffen in Russia–wanting to just buy rides for mice to Mars or something–and the Russians all but spat into their face?

    In the same way Tommy Tuberville gave Saban to the U of A–the Russians got Musk’s back up.