How Elon Musk Beat Russia’s Space Program
by Leonid Bershidsky
The upstart billionaire’s private passion enabled SpaceX to achieve things the Russian industry has given up.
Rocket man’s toy.
Photographer: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Nowhere did Tuesday’s launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket echo as powerfully as in Russia. The private U.S. company continues to produce technical feats on which the Russian space industry has given up: First the consistent reuse of rockets, and now the successful launch of a rocket with as many as 27 engines.
The Soviet Union tried something similar in the 1960s and early 1970s. Sergei Korolev, the rocket designer who launched the first satellite and the first man into space, began the development of what came to be known as the N-1, a 30-engine superheavy rocket capable of taking a 75-ton space station to orbit and perhaps to the Moon, Mars and Venus. Finished after Korolev’s death in 1966, the N-1 was test-launched four times. Each of the launches failed, largely because of the difficulty of running so many engines at the same time.
Now SpaceX has pulled off a similar task, and even though it’s not clear yet who will contract for the Falcon Heavy’s services, SpaceX founder Elon Musk now has the most capable missile in the world: It can deliver up to 64 tons into orbit. Russia’s plans to build such a rocket, capable of flying to the Moon or to Mars, aren’t even complete yet, and certainly not fully funded, though Igor Komarov, head of Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, has promised a first launch in 2028. Even China is likely to have a superheavy launch vehicle before Russia. But it’s the success of upstart Musk that smarts. Roskosmos has the full power of the state behind it, after all. And yet here’s this boyish-looking showman launching his roadster into space, David Bowie blasting from the car’s speakers and “Don’t Panic” — a quote from Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” — lit up on the central console.
The corniness didn’t make it less bitter. Russians laugh when it hurts and there were plenty of Russian memes that gamely acknowledged defeat by suggesting what Russia could have launched into space in place of a Tesla Roadster:
Коллаж «Симметричный ответ». Холст, масло. 2018 pic.twitter.com/KNwLZmd3kT
— Alexander Roslyakov (@ARoslyakov) February 6, 2018
But the undertone is serious. Vitaly Egorov, spokesman for Dauria Aerospace, a private Russian satellite manufacturer that works with Roskosmos, posted bitterly on Facebook:
In fact, Musk hasn’t done anything fantastical. Korolev has done this kind of thing, and so did [rocket engine designer Valentin] Glushko. Soviets did it, and Russians can do it too. But now we’re onlookers and we see it as the stuff of fantasy. Many people have asked me: “Could we replicate the success of SpaceX?” Technically, we can. In the final accounting, landing a stage or making a superheavy rocket is a mathematical task, and we aren’t out of mathematicians. What we are out of is dreamers. To know how to fly and where to fly, we need to know why we’re flying.