Russia revs up the business of space

Moscow counts down launch of private space sector in the shadows of prolific accomplishments of its Soviet past.

    Visitors stand in front of the original descent vehicle of the Vostok spacecraft during an exhibition with the image of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin - the first human in outer space in 1961 - looking on [Maxim Shpenkov/EPA]
    Visitors stand in front of the original descent vehicle of the Vostok spacecraft during an exhibition with the image of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin - the first human in outer space in 1961 - looking on [Maxim Shpenkov/EPA]

    Moscow, Russia - Who hasn't dreamed of flying to outer space - but without the medical examinations that deem most candidates unfit, weeks of vomit-inducing centrifuge training, or the fear of crash-landing into the ocean? 

    If you want a safe and relatively cheap jump to the height Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, reached in 1961, Cosmocourse is your ride. And it comes at only $250,000, or 80 times less than the $20m Dennis Tito, a US millionaire and the world's first space tourist, paid for a week aboard the International Space Station. 

    The Moscow-based private space company is developing a reusable, alcohol-fuelled spaceship that will carry seven people to about 200km above sea level, beyond Earth's atmosphere and gravity. After several minutes of weightlessness, the parachuted ship will fall back to the spaceport. 

    The first launch is scheduled at Kapustin Yar, a Volga region military cosmodrome, in 2020, and the ship's design is based on tried-and-tested Soviet technology.

    "There is nothing new about it, the only new thing is the business idea," Pavel Pushkin, Cosmocourse's director general and former rocket designer for the Khrunichev Centre, one of the world's primary spacecraft producers, told Al Jazeera. 

    And that's exactly what Russia's nascent private space industry means - business. 

    In recent years, privately owned Western space companies such as Space X, Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin have challenged the traditional, state-funded or backed corporations. And as the market for commercial satellites, space tourism, and telecom services is expanding, Russian players are trying to carve out a niche for themselves despite their nation's economic crisis, Western sanctions, and growing government pressure.

    Yaliny, a space telecom company, will soon offer unlimited international phone calls and Web access from anywhere on Earth for $10 a month. Lin Industrial is developing ultra-light rockets that will weigh only 16 tonnes and carry up to a 180kg payload.

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    SputniX has launched Russia's first private satellite, and is developing many more. Hudway App turns your mobile phone into a sat-linked navigator that projects a three-dimensional image of the road ahead on to your windshield.

    These companies that often employ just a handful of staff look minuscule in comparison with their giant parent - Russia's astronomically expensive, state-funded space programme that served as a propaganda tool in a Manichean struggle for world domination. 

    Arms race spinoff

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    Nazi Germany's "Vengeance Weapon," the V2 ballistic missile, became the first device to reach Earth's low orbit in 1944. The V2 technology became a blueprint for the first Soviet and US spaceships,  and the principles of its launch and landing are used in Cosmocourse's vessel. 

    Sergei Korolev, the Soviet space programme's father, initially designed bombers and missiles, and the 1957 Sputnik launch was a test of USSR's first intercontinental ballistic missile designed to carry a hydrogen bomb. 

    "The space programme was a spinoff of the nuclear missile programme in Russia," defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told Al Jazeera. 

    Only after the international uproar that followed Sputnik's launch did Moscow realise the propaganda potential of space travel, and spared no money or manpower to spur it on. Baikonur, the world's first cosmodrome now located in ex-Soviet Kazakhstan, occupies a sun-parched chunk of steppe larger than the US state of Delaware.

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    The Soviets sent the first man and woman into orbit. Then they took a spacewalk, photographed the Moon's dark side, soft-landed probes on the Moon, Venus and Mars, and assembled an orbiting space station – all of that for the first time in history, too. Even in its twilight years, the USSR sent missions to Halley's Comet and developed a space shuttle. 

    The post-Soviet crisis devastated the industry, and the cash-strapped Kremlin sold the Soyuz spacecraft's designs to China, where it became a prototype for the Shenzhou ship. But Russia continued launches from Baikonur, running the world's only reliable "space taxi" after the US retired its space shuttles in 2011. 

    "Rain or shine or sleet or snow don't matter," Mark Bowman, deputy director of the NASA Human Space Flight Programme, told this reporter in 2007, hours before a Soyuz spaceship pierced the sky above Baikonur.

    Survival of the fittest

    However, since 2010, in a series of crashes and malfunctions, Russia has lost dozens of satellites and a research station that was supposed to explore a Martian moon. It grounded a reusable space ship and unveiled the new Vostochny spaceport in southeastern Siberia amid corruption scandals, hunger strikes of unpaid workers, and delays. 

    Corruption, consolidation of the space industry around several state corporations, their focus on manned flights that contribute little to space exploration, and a lack of younger specialists have contributed to the industry's decline, analysts say. 

    "All of our Napoleonic space plans are only aimed at spending [state-allocated] budgets without a link to end result," space industry analyst Pavel Luzin told Al Jazeera. "Research goals that provide real and long-term results are secondary." 

    And that's when Dauria Aerospace stepped in. 

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    Russia's first and most successful private space company was started in 2012 by businessman Mikhail Kokorich, dubbed "Russia's Elon Musk," the owner of SpaceX. It soon launched a communications satellite for Samsung, the South Korean electronics giant, and developed a cloud-based platform for satellite imagery that was sold to urban planners, internet service providers, and agriculturalists.

    Then Dauria struck deals to develop mini-satellites for Indian and Chinese companies and Roscosmos, Russia's state-owned space giant. Last year, it sold two satellites that monitor the whereabouts of river and ocean ships to prevent their collision to a US customer for $4.35m.

    The company tries to emulate the success of US private space companies, but the differences between the business climates in the West and Russia are staggering.

    "It's two different worlds," Sergei Ivanov, Dauria's director-general, told Al Jazeera.

    But Dauria's designs to expand its operations in the West were cut short after sanctions were imposed on Moscow after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the company closed down its offices in Germany and California. 

    Russian prosecutors also accused the company of allegedly falsifying the satellite designs developed for a state-funded space company. The charges, however, were dropped in 2015. 

    "Dauria has a chance to reach the markets in China, India and developing countries," expert Luzin said. "But one needs investment, production, personnel and a lack of investigators in the reception."

    Despite the difficulties, Dauria hatches daring plans.

    At a conference in Skolkovo, a Moscow suburb that hosts a cluster of hi-tech startups, Ivanov talked about the possibility of an unmanned mission to Apophis, a tiny asteroid that will approach the Earth in 2029 - and, according to some alarmists, collide with it. 

    Dauria's proposed mission is, however, very different from the plot of Armageddon, the 1998 action movie in which Bruce Willis' character prevents such a collision. It simply plans a sample-return flight to determine the potential for mining rare earth elements needed for hi-tech industry.

    "Technically, it is possible," Dauria's Yuri Zaiko, a space researcher who helped design missions to the Moon, Mars and Halley's Comet, told a panel of experts.

     Cosmonaut marks half century since first space walk

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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