March 22, 2023:
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February resulted in severe economic sanctions on Russia which the Russian government was collecting less money for national programs. Military spending took priority, but that did not extend to the Russian space program. This became evident six months after the invasion when Russia confirmed that it was not withdrawing from the ISS (International Space Station) program by 2024 but would scale back its support because of the economic sanctions. That means other members of the ISS consortium will have to provide the transportation services to and from the space station. The Americans are already doing that via the SpaceX passenger and cargo capsules. Other American and European firms have developed similar capabilities. Currently the ISS is supposed to remain operational until 2030.
Even without the sanctions the Russian space program (Roscosmos) was in financial trouble, and sanctions only added to the many problems the Russian space program has had in the last decade. Roscosmos is responsible for maintaining the Russian GPS (GLONASS) satellites as well as all other military communications and surveillance satellites. Roscosmos has been receiving between $3.4 billion and $3.9 a year. This also has to cover the cost of maintaining the Plesetsk military launch site and other military related space program infrastructure. Roscosmos also handles commercial launches at the old Soviet Baikonur launch center in Kazakhstan. Russia rents this site from Kazakhstan and has fallen behind in rent payments. In response Kazakhstan seized Roscosmos assets at Baikonur. Russia is not getting foreign commercial launch business because of the sanctions. Because of the Ukraine war sanction, Russia has less cash in general and can’t even muster enough troops to threaten Kazakhstan. There is also a problem with Russia referring to Kazakhstan as one of many areas, like Ukraine, that should be absorbed back into Russia. Kazakhstan agrees with Ukraine on that issue and is standing up to Russia to show its determination.
The current Russian government wants to eliminate all cooperation with Western nations (the United States and Europe). Roscosmos officials point out that is not economically possible or technically preferable. Cooperation with the West has increased the capabilities of the Russian space program and provided economic opportunities for Russia. A much larger space program budget would be required and the loss of Western tech and markets for satellite launch services and satellite manufacturing would hurt Russia more than the West. There are other problems, some needing immediate attention. For example, 14 of the 25 GLONASS satellites have exceeded their expected useful life and have to be replaced to keep GLONASS operational. Roscosmos has developed a new generation of GLONASS -K satellites to replace the older GLONASS-Ms that are past their replacement date. Russia has been producing 15 to 17 new satellites a year and in the next few years many of those will be GLONASS -Ks. Russia cannot afford to replace the aging GLONASS birds quickly enough to prevent shrinkage in the number of satellites required for global coverage. The sanctions mean Russia losing sales of satellites and launch services (putting foreign satellites into orbit). The Russian government insists that Roscosmos can survive without Western nations as partners and customers. Roscosmos officials know better and quietly dismiss government plans to put a Russian space station into orbit after 2030.
The reality is that the current financial crisis ends a long Russian history with space stations. The Mir space station was the last of eight Russian built space stations and the one that remained occupied the longest (4,594 days). The 130-ton Mir was brought down in 2001 after Russia joined the ISS consortium. The 420-ton ISS has been in orbit since 1998, when the first of 17 modules was operational. Other nations have built similar, and rather temporary space stations. That effort began in the 1970s with the Russian Salyut 1 but since the 1990s most nations with space programs have put their resources into supporting the ISS. Now the development of commercial space stations will dominate simply because it’s cheaper and more efficient than government run operations. This has already happened, again without much media fanfare, to the design, launch and operation of space satellites.
While Roscosmos fades away it is replaced by the expanding Chinese space program, which is expected to become dominant by the 2030s. The most obvious aspect of this is space stations. There are only two in orbit. The ISS is the largest (419 tons) occupied (usually by a crew of six), the longest in orbit (over 23 years) and the longest occupied (21 years). The ISS was initially expected to have a useful (occupied) life of fifteen years. The ISS was not completed until 2011. The longer it was up there the more space station tech was developed. That led to extensions to the useful life of space stations. Until recently the ISS was to be used until 2028 but it is proposed to extend that to 2030. Without any new government proposals for a new space station, the only one up there after 2030 would be the Chinese Tiangong 3, which has been occupied since 2021 and will be completed in 2022 as a 66-ton unit with a useful life of 15 years. Tiangong 3 was designed to easily be doubled in size and extend useful life to 30 years.
China's new space station could be built so quickly because space tech has advanced over the years. For that reason, there are several proposals by Western firms to finance, build and operate commercial space stations. This development is no surprise to veteran space program engineers and administrators. Most of these new developments go unnoticed by the public because it is kind of boring tech stuff. One exception was commercial firm SpaceX with its revolutionary SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicle) tech which greatly reduced the cost of putting anything into orbit. The Chinese didn’t use SpaceX tech to build their new space station.
The ISS cost about $150 billion to build and operate so far. The Tiangong 3 is expected to cost much less (as in over 50 percent less) because it's now cheaper to build and launch satellite components and China plans to include lots of space for profitable science experiments. The large number of such experiments carried out in the ISS demonstrated that there is a market for this and that’s the motivation behind commercial space stations, especially those using SpaceX SLV tech and similar new tech developed by SpaceX and a number of other firms. Space stations no longer have to be government funded science experiments. Few noticed how much the costs were coming down at the same time income sources increased. Current plans are to have the first commercial space station operational before ISS retires in 2030. More commercial stations will follow.
China seemed to sense this trend when, without much fanfare, they put their first space station into orbit in 2011, This was the eight-ton Tiangong 1. It lasted two years and provided practical experience for the construction and launch of the 8.6-ton Tiangong 2 in late 2016. This one was built to last longer and in early 2017 a Chinese cargo vehicle made an automated docking with the Tiangong 2. This was a major step for the Chinese, who could now maintain two or three people in the Tiangong 2 for up to 30 days with the supplies from one cargo vehicle. China put the first 22 t0n module of the Tiangong 3 in orbit during April 2021 and it has been occupied since September, 2021. Two laboratory modules, each weighing the same as the first, are planned for 2022. The first of these was launched in July with the second one scheduled for October. This will make the initial Tiangong 3 complete. Three more modules can be added to double the crew size to six.
China wanted to join the consortium (United States, Russia, European Union, Japan and Canada) that built and managed the ISS. There was opposition within the U.S. government about Chinese espionage efforts that had obtained data from the United States for peaceful use of space but had used that information for military purposes. The U.S. passed the Wolf Act in early 2011 prohibiting the American space agency NASA from cooperating with China on the ISS. That ended Chinese efforts to participate in the ISS. Later in 2011 China launched, on schedule, Tiangong 1, its first space station.