On Friday, Russia plans to launch its first spacecraft to the Moon since 1976. After years of space mission failures and being isolated on the international stage due to the war in Ukraine, Moscow hopes to regain its status as an important player in space exploration and strengthen its alliance with China. This is a reconfiguration of the race to the stars.
On April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made the first manned flight into space, putting the USSR ahead in the race to the stars. With this achievement, the Soviet giant demonstrated the power of its model compared to its American rival. Six decades later, Russia hopes to once again distinguish itself in the space field with the launch of Luna-25 on Friday, August 11. Luna-25 is a lander designed to land on the Moon.
The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has announced that a Soyuz launcher has been assembled at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East for the launch of Luna-25. The spacecraft is expected to land near the South Pole of the Moon in challenging terrain. The flight is estimated to last between four and a half to five and a half days.
The mission of Luna-25 is to collect samples, analyze the soil, and conduct long-term scientific research, according to the statement from the Russian space agency. Xavier Pasco, an expert in space policy and director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, summarizes that Luna-25 is part of a program preparing for lunar landings. With this program, the Russians want to show that they are still in the race despite the situation in Ukraine where they seem to be entangled.
Luna-25 is a high-stakes project for Russia. It is their first lunar launch since 1976, in a very different context from the Soviet era. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, is struggling to complete its projects, plagued by debt and corruption. Their most recent public failure was in February when coolant leaked from a Soyuz spacecraft.
The Luna-25 mission itself has been a long-standing project. It was developed in 1997 in the aftermath of the Soviet Union but suffered setbacks and delays. “I can’t remember how many Luna-25 launches were planned!” admits René Pischer, representative of the European Space Agency (ESA) in Russia.
The Russian space project has also been affected by more recent events. Initially involved in the launch of Luna-25, Luna-26, and especially Luna-27, an ambitious mission for the scientific exploitation of lunar resources, the European Space Agency terminated all collaboration after the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Without the help of Europe, what are the chances of success for the Luna-25 mission? “Until now, the Russian space sector has relied on international cooperation,” comments Isabelle Sourbès-Verger, geographer and researcher at CNRS, specializing in the comparative analysis of national space policies.
The Russian agency has relied on components of American or European origin. They need to regain this expertise. Therefore, the outcome of this launch will be interesting to see. It is a difficult and complicated mission to the south pole of the Moon, and it has been a long time since Russia has had a successful space exploration mission.
If successful, Russia would symbolically reconnect with its past. Luna-25, named after a famous series of Soviet missions, openly carries this heritage.
“Vladimir Putin has never been passionate about space, but it is part of the crown jewels of the Soviet legacy,” notes Isabelle Sourbès-Verger. It is one of his areas of prestige, along with nuclear power. During a visit to the Vostochny Cosmodrome in April 2022, the Russian president emphasized that despite “total” sanctions imposed on the Soviet Union in 1961, they were able to send Yuri Gagarin into space.
Russia can rely on an old ally, China, to regain its central position in the space race. China has become a major player in space exploration and plans to jointly establish a permanent station on the surface of the Moon with Moscow.
This alliance was formed in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse and has been strengthened since 2014 in response to the overwhelming dominance of the United States.
The United States remains the country that allocates the most resources to space exploration, and the involvement of private actors such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has intensified the competition in the race to the stars.
“The big thing in space is the return to the Moon,” says Xavier Pasco. By turning to this activity, Russia is sending a geopolitical message. For now, it is a scientific and peaceful challenge, but this type of large program, which will occupy us for the next 30 years, will undoubtedly become more political in nature.
In the face of this reconfiguration, which appears to create tension between blocs, it is difficult to see where international collaboration fits in. Since the fall of the Soviet bloc, space has remained one of the few areas of cooperation among geopolitical rivals.
The United States, Russia, and Europe have worked together on the International Space Station (ISS). However, the ISS is coming to an end, and Russia has already announced its withdrawal from the ISS after 2024. Is this the end of an era? Not so fast. Isabelle Sourbès-Verger points out that after the space race until 1970, there was a period of cooperation with the disappearance of the USSR and the recovery of Russian capabilities.
In 2025 or 2030, multiple national programs will develop independently, but that does not mean the end of all solidarity. Manned flights, which are costly and require complex logistics, can only be accomplished through teamwork, especially for missions to Mars. “We need to maintain this terrestrial solidarity in the face of the difficulty of the challenge,” she says.