Six decades after Gagarin, nostalgia—and not much else—fuels Russia in space

Sixty years ago today, a single Soviet man climbed into a small spherical capsule at a secretive spaceport in modern-day Kazakhstan. A Vostok-K rocket sent the capsule, carrying Yuri Gagarin, into low orbit with an apogee of 327 km.

Gagarin would make one pass around the Earth before his spacecraft reentered the planet’s atmosphere, enduring forces above 8 g. Because the Vostok capsule had no means of making a soft landing, Gagarin was ejected at 7 km above the ground and landed about 10 minutes later under his parachute. The flight lasted just 108 minutes, but Gagarin’s legacy would be eternal.

Amid the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, the Soviets had struck a tremendous blow with this flight. Although the mission was used for propaganda purposes, in later remarks, Gagarin expressed a peaceful sentiment since repeated by subsequent generations of astronauts. “Looking at the Earth from afar, you realize it is too small for conflict and just big enough for cooperation,” he said.

The Russians are justifiably proud of their space program and role in sending the first spacecraft, Sputnik, and first human into space. The Russian space corporation has created a special website to mark the 60th anniversary, which details the historic flight. And indeed Gagarin is worth celebrating, a true hero to all of humanity.

Need for modernization

But nostalgia only gets you so far. As the Cold War eventually fizzled out in the 1980s, Russia put less of a premium on spaceflight, and government spending declined. The Soviet answer to NASA’s space shuttle, the reusable Buran spacecraft, made just a single (uncrewed) flight into space in 1988. Three years later, the Soviet Union broke apart, and the spacecraft proved unaffordable.

For the last three decades, the Russians and United States have partnered in space exploration, co-leading development of the International Space Station. After the space shuttle retired in 2011, NASA agreed to rely on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to get its astronauts into orbit. The partnership was not always easy, but it worked. Americans wanting to go to space had to get there through Russia. It was a point of pride for the aging Russian space program.

Nevertheless, the Soyuz spacecraft is based on a design that first launched in 1967, although parts of it have undergone modernization. Therefore, Russia’s spacecraft today is living on nostalgia from Gagarin’s flight six decades ago and spacecraft technology that was developed more than five decades ago.

This reality has been made apparent by the rise of SpaceX—and particularly NASA’s use of the Crew Dragon spacecraft to get its astronauts to the International Space Station now. The vehicle is sleek, modern, and much roomier than the cramped Soyuz vehicle. Last October, former cosmonaut Maxim Suraev tweeted an image comparing the interior of the Russian Soyuz vehicle with that of Dragon, with the caption, “Needless to say, you can see for yourself.” The photo characterized the Soyuz as “economy class” and Dragon as “first class.”

Because NASA now has access to Crew Dragon, it can stop purchasing Soyuz seats for American and other international astronauts on Soyuz, which cost more than $90 million apiece. These purchases accounted for about one-fifth of Russia’s annual space budget of $2.4 billion.

Waking the Dragon

This has left Russians in an awkward position. Their response, so far, has been to snipe at the safety of the SpaceX vehicle. Crew Dragon does have a limited run, with a single successful mission (Demo-1), a second one that will conclude later this month (Crew-1), and a third planned for launch this month (Crew-2). But so far the spacecraft and its Falcon 9 rocket have performed admirably in flight.

After this initial success, SpaceX has already announced two private missions on Crew Dragon, flown by space tourists. More are expected. This prompted a negative response from Dmitry Loskutov, the head of a Russian space subsidiary, Glavkosmos. “Commercial space flight participants fly into space for positive emotions, priceless experience, and the opportunity of continued monetization of their time in Earth orbit, and none of them wants to feel like a crash test dummy,” he said.

The irony of this remark is that Crew Dragon makes a relatively soft landing in the ocean. The Soyuz has a more energetic landing; two seconds before touchdown, six engines fire to slow the vehicle’s descent rate to 1.5 meters per second. There’s a concussive effect when the engines fire and a similar thud when the vehicle slams into the ground. It’s often described by astronauts as something like a car crash.

Listing image by Russian Government