Is Russia losing relevance to China’s Moon program?

Special to, October 10, 2023


By Richard Fisher

It took much Chinese persuading but by 2020 to 2021 it was becoming increasingly clear that Russia was ready to dump its space partnership with the United States and Western space agencies for a new partnership with China.

Space cooperation between the former Cold War foes that gelled in the early 1990s was one of the highest profile indicators that Russia might coexist in real peace with the West, not in the vein of the old Soviet-Leninist concept of “peaceful coexistence” which meant Soviet dominance.

The second test launch of Angara-A5 on Dec. 14, 2020.

In February 1994 Russian Cosmonaut Sergei Kirkalev flew on U.S. Space Shuttle STS-60, which was followed by the March 1995 visit of U.S. Astronaut Norm Thagaard to the Russian space station Mir, and then the June 27, 1995 Space Shuttle STS-71 first historic docking with the Mir.

This created the basis for Russian-American cooperation in building and manning the $150 billion International Space Station (ISS), which starting in 2000 to the current period has seen 273 visitors from 21 countries—the most successful international space cooperation program in human history.

The U.S. contributed about $3 billion a year to operate the ISS and after Space Shuttle flights ended in 2011, the U.S. would purchase rides to the ISS on Russian space launchers as an additional subsidy to the Russian space sector.

But by the mid-2010s Russian dictator Vladimir Putin was firming up his new entente with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dictator Xi Jinping, to target the West and to use each other to achieve Russian regional and CCP global hegemonic ambitions.

At the 2016 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico, Russian space officials would reply to a query from this analyst to the affirmative, that their plans for space cooperation with China were positive and growing.

At its Moscow Air Show in 2009 and then at the Paris Airshow in 2019, Russia would reveal its evolving architecture for a future Moon Base, showing concept models for Moon landers and Moon habitats.

While one might speculate that Russia was trying to sell its Moon lander and habitat technology to China, in a likely strategy to gain Chinese funding “subsidies” to pay for Moon systems development Moscow could not then afford.

China-Russia Moon partnership in June 2021: an initial briefing for the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) shows alternate Chinese Long March-9 and Russian Angara heavy lift space launchers supporting Moon Base building. / Russian Internet

But apparently China did not budge and in March 2021, when they announced the formation of the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), there was merely a commitment to develop a joint “roadmap” for cooperation.

Not included in the political announcement, but quite apparent from Chinese public and private disclosures, was that China was well into the development of a completely indigenous array of Moon launching, landing, habitat and control systems.

Russia was certainly a political asset for the ILRS, but Russia was also expected to “pay” its way to the Moon, develop its own Moon systems.

While China was quite willing to subsidize its “traditional” partners like Pakistan, or its newer “ideological” partners like Venezuela to even put people on its Space Station or even to take them to the Moon, it is not clear that China also expected to subsidize Russian ILRS participation.

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