Russia drags NASA: Enjoy your expensive SpaceX capsule, our Soyuz is the cheap Kalashnikov of rockets

Looks like the space race between Washington DC and Moscow is back on

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The big cheese at Roscosmos has claimed a launch to the International Space Station using good ol’ fashioned Russian Soyuz rockets still costs less than SpaceX’s offering.

In an opinion article shared on the Russian agency's website in English, Dmitry Rogozin also accused NASA of being unprofessional, and slammed the Americans' hurtful remarks about a failed 2018 Soyuz launch. He also claimed Russia remained dominant in the global space industry, and hinted that future cosmonauts would live in space without any help from NASA.

The scathing criticism comes shortly after NASA and SpaceX successfully sent Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the orbiting station aboard an American-made rocket that took off from American soil. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said partnering with a private company like SpaceX was necessary as it had become too expensive to purchase a journey to the floating space lab using Roscosmos’ Soyuz rockets. SpaceX, on paper at least, works out millions of dollars cheaper than using Soyuz.

“In the same manner the paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Titian are priceless being unique and are common heritage, the same is true about the chance given to the Americans by Roscosmos to retain an opportunity to deliver their astronauts to the space station — it is priceless,” Rogozin wrote.

Still, there is a price, and that number is $55m for a seat on SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule, atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, compared to roughly $90m for a seat on Roscosmos’ Soyuz rocket. Rogozin, however, was adamant that a Russian launch is, in fact, cheaper.

"The new American spacecraft are more than double the weight of a Soyuz while offering only one additional seat," he claimed. "To launch such a massive vehicle, Falcon 9 and Atlas V heavy class rockets are used for Crew Dragon and Starliner respectively — let alone the fact that Atlas V is equipped with the Russian RD-180 engine as the first stage main engine. In contrast, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft is injected into orbit by the Soyuz-2.1a rocket being a middle class launch vehicle, and not a heavy one."

“Given that, the cost of our launches is substantially lower than the American," he continued, arguing that the $90m is what the market is willing to bear and thus what Roscomos is willing to charge.

"The sirs seem to confuse launch cost price and launch service price that is formed by the market. Hence, I insist that Soyuz MS spacecraft with the Soyuz-2.1a carrier rocket was and still remains unchallenged — whatever our competitors say."

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“Contrary to common belief, the head of SpaceX built the spacecraft not on his dime, but at the expense of the American taxpayers,” Rogozin argued, helpfully reminding us that SpaceX was indeed under NASA contract and awarded $3.1bn in funding. While the US space agency saved SpaceX's bacon, when it was in dire straits financially, with a contract to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, bear in mind if the rockets hadn't worked, SpaceX wouldn't have been paid all that taxpayer cash. It's also worth noting the Soyuz was developed using Russian state funding.

In short, NASA claims that investment in SpaceX was beneficial for America's economy and for human space exploration; the Russians argue it means SpaceX's $55m price-tag is misleading.

Rogozin also accused the Americans of mocking Roscosmos after one of its Soyuz rockets, in 2018, was forced to abort its launch mid-flight with American Tyler “Nick” Hague and Russian Alexey Ovchinin onboard. They were shaken but unharmed.

"We returned him [Hague] and less than in six months we successfully delivered him to the destination point, the ISS. And when our partners finally managed to carry out a successful test of their spacecraft, we didn't get anything but jokes and mockery, although it would not be out of place to thank our Soyuz, its Soviet developers and Russian engineers who continued modernizing this most reliable spacecraft in the world,” Rogozin thundered.

He said the Soyuz rocket was analogous to a “space Kalashnikov rifle” – cheap, durable, and in “high demand” like the Russian weapon over the years. “The fact that some country now has its own spacecraft does not mean we do not have one anymore. Our country was the first to send a man into space, and we remain dominant,” he added.

Not to be outdone by NASA, the Roscosmos boss went on to list a number of new technologies it was working on. These included the Oryol spacecraft and the Angara rocket that also aims to be reusable like the Falcon 9.

Finally, he warned that Russia wants to build its own space stations so its own astronauts could continue scientific research in zero gravity conditions, a step towards “independence from [its] partners.” At the moment, the US and Russia share the ISS' facilities and work together.

Rogozin is known for being outspoken. In 2014, after the US announced economic sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea, he hit back and suggested America could deliver its astronauts to the ISS with a “trampoline” instead.

The Register has asked NASA for comment. ®

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