Russia eyes bigger slice of space pie

From satellite communications to lunar exploration and setting up space hotels, the space industry is poised to soar into uncharted territories. In this interview with Elena Shipilova from RIR, Sergei Zhukov, head of the Space Technology at Skolkovo Innovation Center, speaks about the future of space and Russia’s ambitious plan to scale up its share in this burgeoning industry.

Has the role of outer space in global politics increased in recent decades?

 Indeed, the world economy is becoming more and more dependent on the intensity of space activities. The market for space technology production and services is estimated at between $300 and 400 billion a year. It has several segments, the biggest being satellite communications and telecommunications (over $100 billion), navigation and distance Earth sensing. Russia’s share in these segments is less than one per cent. In the production of satellites of various kinds, our share is 7–10%. Our share is traditionally high – 33–40% – in orbiting payloads, but that segment is small, about $3 billion a year.

What prevents Russia from increasing its share of the world space markets?

On the one hand, the state financing of space activities in Russia has more than trebled over the last five years and is still growing. The new space strategy is widely discussed. On the other hand, there is virtually no private sector in the industry, whereas the world trend is an increasingly confident involvement of the private sector in space exploration. Besides, there is international division of labour in high-tech sectors, and Russia should not hesitate to form alliances with leading world producers.

Does the private sector account for the US’ dominance in world space activities?

The US today is the only country that pursues virtually all types of space activity. If one combines their civilian and military budgets, the sum is sure to exceed the total spending by the rest of the world on space activities. As for development of the private segment, the US policy adheres to a strict “division of responsibility”: study of the solar system, including planets and asteroids, is the business of the state, whereas developing near-Earth space is the domain of private companies. And you should remember that the giant contractors of the US space agency today, be it Boeing, Lockheed Martin or Orbital, are all private enterprises. They ensure America’s technological lead.

What is the situation in the US regarding startups?

The so-called New Space companies get government help under the public-private partnership scheme. Space startups are supported by various foundations, such as Small Business Innovation Research. Some small firms have managed to grow into world-class companies over the past decade. One salient example is Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), founded by Elon Musk in 2002. Today, he employs a staff of 1,500 and is developing a manned Falcon spacecraft intended to deliver cargoes to the ISS. Another interesting project was launched by Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic is developing sub-orbital tourism. The company Bigelow Aerospace, owned by the hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, is going to build a space hotel.

Do you believe that people will prefer to spend their holidays in orbit rather on sandy beaches?

The case of Virgin Galactic, which has received payments from several hundred people for a future sub-orbital flight, shows that the space tourism market has a future. People readily splash out for submerging in high-tech diving bells or mini submarines. I am not surprised that many are prepared to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to experience weightlessness for several minutes and see the Earth from outside. When technologies become fairly safe and cheap, such travel could become fashionable. Russia is only planning to enter that market, but we have other promising projects. The Glonass system was finally put together last year. This is the second navigation system in the world. The first (GPS) was made by the Americans. There are also Europe’s Galileo and China’s Compass, but they are so far only of local significance. The Skolkovo Foundation today supports several navigation-related projects. This is the path towards the commercialisation of Glonass.

Are any domestically-made “breakthrough products” in the pipeline?

That’s a tough question. Russian energy and engine technologies have a good chance, by which I mean rocket engines and space nuclear plants. I do not rule some less spectacular but important technical solutions in the field of small space platforms and elements of on-board service systems. The members of the Skolkovo project are working on such projects.

Besides the Skolkovo Foundation, are there many others who are willing to support private initiatives?

We are not the only ones. Indeed, other development institutions began to support the commercial industry before we did. They include the Russian Venture Company and Rosnano. By the way, Vnesheconombank is actively investing in major projects.

One gets the impression that Russian businessmen are lukewarm about the space industry. Why?

We have virtually no legislation on commercial space activities. The Federal Law “On Space Activities” was passed back in 1993 and has since been amended and supplemented many times but it remains basically a framework law. Private interests simply do not understand what rules to play by and businessmen are afraid to invest in the sector. And there are many restrictions, such as on high-resolution space photographs and on obtaining licences for space activities.

Is Skolkovo helping to attract private capital into space exploration?

Our strategic goal is to create a site that would attract scientists, engineers, industrialists and entrepreneurs from various countries.

Do you think that, in the future, man will be able to mine minerals on the Moon and perhaps on other planets?

So far, this is sci-fi stuff, but I do not rule out that it might happen in a few decades. There is water, manganese and aluminium on the Moon and asteroids that are fit for making fuel and structural elements of spaceships and long-term stations. American business has ambitious plans to develop rare earth elements and deliver them to Earth. I am referring to Peter Diamandis and some of his colleagues, who set up a Planetary Resources Inc. consortium in late April 2012. The world space business in developing rapidly and we shall just have to see what the outcome is.

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