Moscow — Russia has put a brave face on the loss of its space travel monopoly, saying it plans to test two new rockets this year and resume its lunar programme in 2021.
The comments from the Russian space agency Roscosmoc came after US entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX became the world’s first commercial company to put humans into orbit, signalling the dawn of a new era.
Russia had for many years enjoyed a monopoly as the only country able to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, and Saturday’s flawless US launch meant the loss of a sizeable income for Moscow.
“We are not planning to sit idle,” said Roscosmos spokesperson Vladimir Ustimenko.
“Already this year we will conduct tests of two new rockets and resume our lunar programme next year,” he tweeted.
He did not elaborate but Russian space agency chief Dmitry Rogozin said earlier the country planned to conduct a new test launch of the Angara heavy carrier rocket this autumn.
Rogozin has also said that Russia is pressing ahead with the development of its new intercontinental ballistic missile, the Sarmat, also known as Satan 2 by Nato’s classification.
In 2018, President Vladimir Putin boasted that the Sarmat was one of the new Russian weapons that could render Nato defences obsolete.
The Russian space agency has earned large sums by ferrying US astronauts to the International Space Station: a seat in the Soyuz costs Nasa about $80m.
On Sunday, Roscosmos rushed to point out that the US still needed Moscow. “It’s important to have at least two possibilities to make it to the station. Because you never know,” spokesperson Ustimenko said.
The Russian space programme is renowned for having sent the first man into space in 1961 and launching the first satellite four years earlier. But since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, it has been plagued by corruption scandals and a series of setbacks, losing expensive spacecraft and satellites in recent years.
Meanwhile Rogozin was earlier the subject of a quick quip by Musk. Rogozin once ridiculed the lack of a US manned flight programme, saying it might as well “deliver its astronauts to the ISS by using a trampoline”.
Six years later, Musk and Nasa have had the last laugh. “The trampoline is working,” quipped the 48-year-old US entrepreneur at a post-flight news conference alongside Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Both men laughed. “It’s an inside joke,” Musk added.
On Saturday, his SpaceX made history by becoming the first commercial company to send humans into orbit.
The US feat and Musk’s joke set Russian social media alight, with wits ridiculing Rogozin, and the Russian space chief’s name began trending on Twitter. “How do you like this, Dmitry Rogozin?” one critic prodded.
Russia still prides itself on sending the first human into orbit in 1961 and other achievements of the Soviet-era space programme.
Rogozin has remained conspicuously silent but his spokesperson Ustimenko said. “We don’t really understand the hysteria sparked by the successful launch of a Crew Dragon spacecraft,” he said on Twitter. “What should have happened a long time ago happened,” he added.
While cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, Roscosmos executive director for crewed space programmes, saluted the US achievement in a brief video address, not everyone was in such a gracious mood.
Alexey Pushkov, a member of the upper house of parliament, declared Saturday’s flight was not a big deal. “This is a flight to the International Space Station, not to Mars,” he said on messaging app Telegram.
He pronounced it time to stop ferrying Americans to the orbiting lab. “Russia needs spaces for its own young cosmonauts,” he said.