August 17, 2022

Russia responds to European astronauts: We’ll give you independent spaceflight

Russia responds to European astronauts: We’ll give you independent spaceflight
Russia responds to European astronauts: We’ll give you independent spaceflightRussia responds to European astronauts: We’ll give you independent spaceflight
Enlarge / Russia President Vladimir Putin and Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin shake hands during a meeting at the Konstantin Palace.
Mikhail MetzelTASS via Getty Images

Last week, European astronauts issued a call for the continent to develop its own independent means of launching humans into space. As part of their reasoning, the astronauts said that Europe should not depend on other countries or private companies for human access to space because there are “no guarantees that our needs and values will be a priority” for the transportation provider.

Essentially, the astronauts feel that Europe’s human spaceflight program should not be subject to the whims of others. “Power is the capability and the capacity to act: only then, as fully fledged global partners, we will have a seat at the decision-making table,” they wrote.

The leader of Russia’s space program, Dmitry Rogozin, decided to offer a solution. In a series of three tweets, Rogozin suggested that Europe should use the venerable Soyuz rocket and spacecraft to get its astronauts into space. The vehicle, he said, might launch from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, much as another variant of the Soyuz rocket already does for cargo missions.

A full translation of Rogozin’s three tweets, provided to Ars by Rob Mitchell, follows:

I suppose that at the present moment it is important for Russia and Europe to find new areas and directions for cooperation. One of these projects could be improving the Soyuz launch complex in French Guyana to certify it for crewed flights. If European astronauts want to have their own ability to reach the ISS, then using the thoroughly debugged, reliable Soyuz MS ship atop the no less reliable Soyuz-2 launcher from the French Cosmodrome at Kourou as the European launch site… after being trained by our experts is, in my opinion, an outstanding idea. This would save European taxpayers billions of euros and offer Europe’s space program the ability to join the club of Space Powers, having all the requisite competencies for crewed flights.

This all seems preposterous for a few reasons.

First, this solution makes a mockery of the “independent” access sought by the European astronauts. It would require Russia to manufacture and deliver completed vehicles to the Europeans. It’s not clear why Rogozin believes this is a more independent solution than the European Space Agency simply buying seats on a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle.

Second, Rogozin is making this suggestion at a time when Russia is on the verge of invading Ukraine. The geopolitics of the issue are complex, but this Russian gambit represents the greatest threat to European stability since World War II.

In their appeal for space access, the European astronauts even cited energy dependence—many European nations rely primarily on Russia for natural gas—as an example not to follow with crew transportation. “We will be paying customers in a position of weakness, repeating the mistakes of the past in other strategic domains, which left us dependent on external players for our energy requirements,” they wrote.

Finally, this idea has been considered before. Nearly two decades ago, during a much more benign political time, the possibility of using European-launched Soyuz spacecraft for missions was considered and ultimately rejected. In the present political climate, it would seem to be a nonstarter.

In response to a question from Ars about Rogozin’s tweets, the European Space Agency’s media office replied with an anodyne statement that referenced a meeting between the space agency heads last summer.

“Following a meeting between the ESA Director General and the Roscosmos Director General on 28 July 2021, the two Head of Agencies agreed to set up a joint task force to look into possible future cooperation avenues related to Soyuz at CSG (Guiana Space Center),” the statement read. “The joint task force has been set up and the experts are working on possible cooperation scenarios involving Soyuz at CSG. Once they have accomplished a report, they will present it to the two Head of Agencies.”

It seems doubtful that this report will recommend launching humans on a Soyuz from French Guiana.