It is a tale of two space programs. On Sunday, Russia’s Luna-25 lander malfunctioned as it was poised to touch down on the moon’s south pole the next day — eventually crashing into the lunar surface. Had it landed, it would have been the first country to return to the moon since 1976, when it was then known as the Soviet Union. Instead, it ended up being another black eye for a faltering space program.
Then, a few days later, India’s Chandrayaan-3 lander successfully touched down at the moon’s south pole – making India the fourth country to land on the lunar surface after the Soviet Union, the United States and China. There, researchers hope to use a rover to search for and study ice and soil in the region — valuable and vital resources for future lunar missions.
Although it was a successful mission, the Chandrayaan-3 lander underscored the relative decline of Russia’s civilian space agency, Roscosmos. Ukraine has seen its status on the world stage take a hit since the invasion, and has already been plagued by embarrassing news from its former leader Dmitry Rogozin’s smack talk to several fatal incidents. It happened to astronauts on the International Space Station. The failure of Luna-25 calls into question Roscosmos’ long-term ambitions — and whether or not we’re witnessing the death knell of Russia’s space ambitions.
John Loxton, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told The Daily Beast that “there were problems with Roscosmos even before the invasion of Ukraine.” The problems that have plagued Russia’s space program, he said, reflect problems that have plagued the country for decades, including blatantly Kafkaesque bureaucracy and financial malfeasance.
“They’re not underfunded or prioritized enough — but they have a lot of corruption,” Loxton explained.
Indeed, lack of funding has significantly crippled the once-proud space program. In 2015, the Russian government cut spending on Roscosmos by more than a third due to financial constraints caused by Western sanctions in response to its 2014 invasion of Ukraine. This is That has greatly delayed the agency’s plans to build its own space station by 2023– It clearly hasn’t happened and hasn’t gotten much development since it was announced.
In 2018, Roscosmos again faced budget cuts of about $2.4 billion. These cuts further delayed its spaceflight ambitions and the construction of its spaceports. This despite Russian President Vladimir Putin saying the same year: “It is necessary to drastically improve the quality and reliability of space and launch vehicles. […] To protect Russia’s increasingly threatened leadership in space.
Most recently, in 2021, Putin announced funding for Roscosmos for the next three years due to the financial crisis caused by Western sanctions in response to its invasion of Ukraine (stop us if you’ve heard this before). Against the backdrop of all this was the space agency’s announcement that it lost an eye-watering $262.4 million in revenue in 2020 due to various complications stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite this, Putin has expressed his desire for Roscosmos to return the country’s space ambitions to its former hegemony. However, this can largely be attributed to Putin’s desire to dominate the country for geopolitical rather than scientific purposes.
Laxton explained that this can be seen in Moscow’s focus on Russian space forces and their response to the US space force. Not only does this branch receive the majority of attention when it comes to Russia’s space ambitions, it also controls the resources needed for space exploration.
“The Russian space force, which is the equivalent of the space force in the military, has received priority funding over the past 10 years,” he said. “They have developed a wide range of military capabilities that are viewed as a threat by the United States.”
Laxton added: “The military controls all missile vehicles.” This means that Roscosmos lacks the independence and autonomy to carry out missions compared to the likes of NASA.
There is also widespread corruption throughout Roscosmos—exacerbated by its former head, Rogozin. While he left the role following the Ukraine invasion, many space experts blame Rogozin for the agency’s current state.
Under his wing, Roscosmos had a series of failed and embarrassing launches and was plagued by widespread corruption. Funds earmarked for the construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia — the same spaceport where Luna-25 was launched — were embezzled, resulting in the 2021 sentencing of four former construction company executives.
The latest space mission of Rascosmos crashed on the surface of the moon. The failure marks a massive setback for the agency’s hopes of landing a foot on the moon, which has become a shining gift for the world’s spacefaring nations.
This is because the Moon—and, in particular, its South Pole—is thought to be rich in resources and materials that future lunar colonies can rely on, such as water and minerals. That is why China and India have recently sent rovers to the moon. This is when the US and NASA poured billions of dollars into the Artemis project to return American astronauts to the moon and establish a permanent base.
“There is solid speculation that there are resources in the craters of [lunar] “The South Pole has technical and economic values in addition to scientific interest,” Laxton said. “The South Pole has ‘race’ first.”
However, with Roscosmos now operating with both hands tied behind its back, whatever Putin says is far behind the competition. The Russian space industry is not nearly as advanced or funded as it is in the West, with private sector heavy hitters like SpaceX and Blue Origin.
Laxton cautioned, however, that this does not mean that Roscosmos has yet to be written. “It depends on how the Russian leadership reacts to this defeat,” he said. “After America’s shuttle failures, or the Apollo 1 fire, or some of our Mars failures, they might say – this is not acceptable, we need to get back to where we want to be. Or they could say, ‘Don’t throw good money after bad’, and curtail the citizen program.
For now, things look bleak for Roscosmos. The storied Soviet-Russian space program once projected near-total dominance when it came to space. It produced heroes like Yuri Gagarin, and groundbreaking events like the first satellite into orbit and interplanetary probes between Venus and Mars.
Now, despite its lofty ambitions, it is a shadow of its former self—suffering from its own corruption, inefficiency, and greed.