Andrew Osborn








Vladimir Putin's £500 million cosmodrome is more than a geopolitical muscle flex, 22nd July 2010 12:03

At a time of global economic pain, you might think that pouring public money into a modern-day space race would be the last thing on any self-respecting world leader’s mind. There are, after all, a few pressing day-to-day problems here on planet earth that are placing a rather large strain on many a national budget. That is one of the reasons why the US space shuttle programme is reaching the end of its life with no publicly funded replacement in sight.

In Russia though, it is a different story. The country may be bracing itself for several years of significant budget shortfalls, but its dreams of recapturing its Soviet-era space glory are very much alive. As if to prove that, Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, has just announced hefty funding for a new cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East. The launch facility, closer to Beijing than Moscow, will aptly be called “Vostochny” or “Eastern”. Mr Putin announced the Kremlin had earmarked more than 500 million pounds for its construction in the next three years. His plan is ambitious. Thirty thousand specialists will toil to build a 270-square mile facility complete with launch pads, a high-tech residential compound, and research laboratories.

Mr Putin was on his usual confident form when discussing the project. “Our task is to safeguard our national interests in space and to seriously strengthen Russia’s position on the international market for space services,” he explained. “In a word, we need to be genuinely competitive.” Russia’s strategy shows that the Kremlin is looking well ahead. Mr Putin spoke of how the facility, slated to be fully operational in 2015, would give Russia “full independence” when it came to matters space-related. Russia already dominates the market when it comes to building the rockets used to put satellites into space. But it does not, to its chagrin, possess a civilian launch facility big or good enough to launch them. Instead, it is usually forced to rely on Baikonur , the Soviet-era cosmodrome in neighbouring Kazakhstan and pays handsomely for the privilege. It is an unsatisfactory state of affairs for a country that sees itself as a resurgent great power and which still sees commercial and geopolitical mastery of space in Cold War-style prestige terms. Mr Putin is therefore determined to make it right.

Nor do his plans stop at a new cosmodrome. At the same time, Russian designers are frantically working on a replacement for the Soyuz manned spacecraft. The new craft is supposed to make its maiden test flight in 2015. The United States may in any case be dependent on Russia to get people and supplies to the International Space Station as early as next year after the shuttle programme is wound up. Mr Putin is also pushing Russia’s home grown answer to America’s Global Positioning System – GLONASS – very hard. He is currently considering a controversial proposal from one of Russia’s biggest companies to ensure that all new consumer products that use GPS (mobile phones, car navigation systems etc.) are only sold in Russia in future if they use GLONASS instead.

Nobody seems to have pointed out that such a move would be provocatively protectionist. Russian space officials remain bullish. They say they want to corner fifteen percent of the space services market by 2015. Meanwhile, ordinary Russians remain rightly proud of the Soviet Union’s space firsts – putting the first man and the first satellite into space. But in these very different times, it seems making money from space is just as important as flexing geopolitical muscle. And that, the Kremlin has obviously decided, is a long-term prospect that needs to be nurtured now regardless of the challenging economic environment.