One of the best scenes from the 1990s hit science-fiction series The X-Files depicts two US government agents walking up to a crashed UFO in Pennsylvania. One agent frets about how the Russians will react to news that the US government has recovered an alien craft, despite the fact that the Soviet Union was collapsing.
The other agent, the series’ lead villain known for his penchant for smoking cigarettes, ruefully retorts, “Haven’t you heard? There are no more Russians.”
That quip perfectly encapsulated American and Western attitudes toward Russia in the post-Cold War environment. It continues to define American attitudes toward Russia. I have also, at times in my public career, fallen prey to these notions.
Russia is not the superpower it once was. But it is not a failed state (yet). In fact, President Vladimir Putin’s main foreign-policy goal is not one of restoring Russian power in the aftermath of the Cold War. Rather, Putin’s true aim is to remind the world that Russia is a great power.
Two years ago, for example, as the Donald Trump administration was boldly restoring America’s ailing mission in space, the Kremlin announced that Venus was Russian territory. After all, the former Soviet Union was the first major power to land a probe on the hostile Venusian surface. As the inheritor of the Soviet Union’s power base, the Putin regime believes that the Russian Federation has a viable claim on the second planet from the sun.
Many at the time scoffed. But this behavior mirrors Russian behavior on Earth over the last 20 years.
In 2007, Russia made headlines when a submarine placed the Russian flag on the seabed underneath the North Pole. Most laughed off the move as a bizarre Russian stunt. A year later, under then-president Dmitry Medvedev, Russia announced a new national-security strategy that placed dominating the Arctic Circle as paramount for Russia’s national security over the next decade. Today, Russia is unquestionably the most active Arctic state.
Since 2018, Russia has grown more assertive in space.
Moscow has deployed a series of co-orbital satellites in orbit that could effectively tailgate sensitive American satellites in orbit and disable them.
After the Trump administration attempted to get foreign states to sign the Artemis Accords, which would in effect create a new legal framework for human development of the moon, Russia balked; the Kremlin argued that the Artemis Accords were little more than an illegal land grab in space by imperialistic Americans (it was not).
This year, Russia and China moved closer together in their attempts to create an anti-American alliance for space development. It was announced that Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, would exclusively cooperate with China’s space agency, to develop the moon before the Americans could. By 2030, Moscow and Beijing plan to have manned outposts on the south pole of the moon.
And Russia is looking beyond the moon.
Beginning in 2010, Russia outlined ambitious plans to separate its part of the International Space Station (ISS) by no later than 2028. From there, Russia had designs to create an orbital launch complex.
As part of Russia’s orbital launch complex idea, Roscosmos planned on placing nuclear-powered “tugs” in space. This year, Moscow further outlined that it planned to place the nuclear-powered space tug in orbit by 2030, after which it will pull a Russian spacecraft on a 50-day mission to the moon, Venus and, lastly, Jupiter.
The proposed nuclear-powered space tug is like a cosmic ferry. The system could drastically cut down on the cost of long-term space operations.
This not only underscores the fact that human spaceflight operations are unlikely to taper off over the next 50 years, as skeptics routinely argue. The innovative Russian designs also highlight how Moscow is attempting to corner the market on space mobility.
This is especially worrying as the space mining industry takes shape.
The United States, China, Japan, and the European Space Agency are all looking to space mining as a viable market over the next several decades (worth at least US$1 trillion). One of the biggest hindrances to the space mining sector will be transportation costs (getting mined resources from one location in the solar system to Earth).
Should Russia capture the “space tug” market, as Moscow currently intends, it will enjoy significant first-mover advantage over its American rival.
This move would mirror how Russia ensnared Europe with its cheap natural-gas resources. Russia could similarly force the world’s great powers and budding space mining firms to use their space-tug services to ferry supplies, personnel, and resources around the solar system, because Russia will have the only viable space-tug infrastructure in place.
One thing is clear: Russia intends to play a significant role in the development of space. Washington ignores Moscow’s intentions at America’s peril.
It would behoove the Americans to place their own nuclear-powered “space tug” in orbit now. Ceding this critical aspect of future human space development to authoritarian Russia, a Russia that is increasingly close to China, is not in America’s strategic interests.