What Dmitry Rogozin’s Firing Could Mean for Russia’s Approach to Space

What Dmitry Rogozin’s Firing Could Mean for Russia’s Approach to Space
The Nauka and Prichal modules and the Soyuz MS-21 crew ship. (Photo: NASA)

The Kremlin has abruptly ended Dmitry Rogozin’s tenure as the head of Russia’s space agency, forcing us to wonder if the introduction of a new space chief might change Roscosmos and the way it handles other space agencies. Sadly, there’s good reason for pessimism.

As British rockers The Who once sang: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” This could well be the case at the Russian space agency, where earlier today the Kremlin announced the firing of Rogozin, who was replaced by former Russian deputy prime minister Yury Borisov. It’s hard to know how Borisov might alter the complexion of Roscosmos or the agency’s relationship with its International Space Station partners, but given Russia’s waning interest in space and ongoing focus on the war in Ukraine, it’s a safe bet that things aren’t going to change too dramatically.

Rogozin’s departure is undoubtably a relief for NASA and other Roscosmos partners, as his four-year tenure as director general of Roscosmos was fiery and turbulent. Rogozin rarely hesitated to lash out publicly when things rubbed him the wrong way — and there was no shortage of things that got him agitated.

Back in 2014, when still deputy prime minister of Russia, Rogozin responded to newly imposed U.S. sanctions by saying NASA will soon require trampolines to send its astronauts to the ISS (NASA was dependent on Russia for crewed access to space at the time). As Roscosmos chief, he once again railed against sanctions while continually threatening to abandon the space station. Consistently crass, Rogozin said that people who impose sanctions against Russia should be checked for Alzheimer’s and that Russia’s departure from the ISS would result in the space station making an uncontrolled deorbit.

Last year, an anonymous high-ranking official in the Russian space industry blamed a “mentally unstable” NASA astronaut for drilling a hole in a Soyuz capsule docked to the ISS, in an unfounded accusation that smacked of Rogozin’s involvement. Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Roscosmos put out a fabricated video showing cosmonauts entering into a module and leaving the ISS for good, raising fears that Roscosmos would abandon NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei in low Earth orbit. And as early as this week, Rogozin threatened to withhold access to Europe’s new ISS robotic arm — a response to the European Space Agency terminating its relationship with Roscosmos on the ExoMars mission.

You get the picture. But despite these bleak episodes, Rogozin’s histrionics never really amounted to much. “Rogozin’s bluster was rarely translated into actual practical action,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, wrote to me in an email. “But it did contribute a sense of Trumpian instability to the Russian space effort, and distracted space workers are not a good thing for safety.” Indeed, it was under Rogozin’s tenure that one of the most serious incidents in the 25-year history of the ISS took place. In August 2021, a newly docked Russian module inadvertently fired its thrusters, causing the space station to backflip out of control.

Rogozin couldn’t act on his threats or do anything to revamp Russia’s deteriorating space program on account of Russian President Vladimir Putin not really caring that much about space exploration. Putin slashed Russia’s space budgets and instead prioritised his build-up of Russia’s military. As a substitute for building cool things in space, Russia changed its focus to destroying things in space, as witnessed by the country’s reckless anti-satellite weapons test in November of last year.

The new guy, Yury Borisov, will likely face the same challenges as his predecessor. How he will approach them remains to be seen.

Keith Cowing, editor of NASAWatch.com and a former rocket scientist at NASA, doesn’t know if Borisov will be any better than Rogozin, but he said the new space chief “needs to fall back to basic problems” and deal with the “cash-strapped Roscosmos,” he told me over the phone. Cowing said the departure of Rogozin may represent a good thing for Roscosmos, as his continual antics “were causing people to step away.” His advice to Borisov is to “defer to people who are doing the work and actually running the place,” because the one thing that Roscosmos most needs right now is “institutional stability.”

That Roscosmos will start to exhibit signs of positive change is possible, even if it is unlikely. A newly brokered agreement between the U.S. and Russia for a crew swap on upcoming flights of SpaceX Crew Dragon and Russia’s Soyuz likely has nothing to do with the firing of Rogozin, according to Cowing, but he said there is something that Borisov could do in good faith: return OneWeb’s satellites. Roscosmos was supposed to launch 36 of OneWeb’s internet satellites in March but is instead holding them hostage. The London-based OneWeb is currently seeking to build an internet constellation in low Earth orbit, though one smaller than SpaceX’s Starlink. Returning the satellites to OneWeb “is an easy thing that Borisov can do,” Cowing told me, and it could “restore confidence in Roscosmos” or be a “positive sign that things might change.”

McDowell doesn’t expect Russian space policy to change, but he hopes it will be less noisy. Borisov, given his military and defence background, will likely “support Putin’s Ukraine invasion just as much as Rogozin, but perhaps he won’t push that support in NASA’s face quite as much,” he said.

Speaking of NASA, I reached out to the space agency for comment on Rogozin’s departure but have yet to hear back. I asked Cowing how NASA ought to respond.

“Don’t gloat,” he replied.