The fiery chief of Russia's troubled space programme

Thibaut MARCHAND
·3-min read

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia's troubled space agency Roscosmos, is hardly your typical bureaucrat.

Brash and brazen, the former diplomat has made his name with provocative tweets and boisterous claims.

But he is equally well-known for leading the once-prized Soviet space programme during years of corruption scandals and technological stagnation.

In 2014, Rogozin, then a deputy prime minister in charge of space, responded to Western sanctions on Russia with a tweet suggesting the United States could send its astronauts to space "using a trampoline".

Russia at the time was the only country capable of delivering crews to the International Space Station (ISS), with a seat on its Soyuz rockets costing tens of millions of dollars.

The tweet didn't age well.

"The trampoline is working," US billionaire Elon Musk laughed at a May 2020 news conference after his company SpaceX successfully launched a crew to the ISS.

The launch was a gamechanger and dealt a major blow to Roscosmos and Russia, which had leaned on its ageing but reliable Soyuz launchers to stay essential in the space industry.

Now "the fig leaf has fallen off," Andrei Ionin of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics in Moscow told AFP.

Rogozin's problems don't end there. Russia is also losing its market share in satellite launches.

Its new Vostochny Cosmodrome, purpose built for dispatching satellites to space, is underused, and its ongoing construction has been scandalised by corruption.

Appointed in 2018 as the head of Roscosmos after working as a deputy prime minister -- and before that Russia's ambassador to NATO -- Rogozin is not solely responsible for the setbacks, with many problems dating back long before his arrival.

But the 57-year-old has struggled to return the space programme to the glory days of 1961 when the Soviet Union launched the first man into space -- Yuri Gagarin.

The 60th anniversary of Gagarin's flight is on Monday.

- Nationalist roots -

After suffering humiliations at the hands of NASA and Space X, Rogozin has begun boasting of Russia's grand plans to catch up, including a mission to Venus and a rocket capable of 100 round-trip flights to space.

But many observers are sceptical.

"Russia doesn't have any new spacecraft," a former Roscosmos official said on condition of anonymity. "There is only a model."

As for the mission to Venus, "given the complexity of the task, Russian scientists aren't even thinking about it", independent space expert Vitaly Yegorov said.

Experts believe the real goal of Rogozin's grand pronouncements is to convince the Kremlin to inject larger sums of money into the Roscosmos budget.

But space is not a priority for President Vladimir Putin, who is more focused on cementing Russia's military might.

Before taking over Roscosmos, Rogozin was a nationalist politician whose career took off in 2003 when his Motherland party won seats in parliament.

His party's deputies were known to lash out at Jews and the LGBT community, and Rogozin once appeared in a video featuring migrants from the Caucasus calling for a "clean up" of Moscow.

He is deeply loyal to Putin and opponents have speculated that his party was a Kremlin project aimed at channelling the nationalist vote.

His loyalty was rewarded in 2008 when Rogozin, who is fluent in English, French, Spanish and Italian, became Russia's ambassador to NATO -- a post he held until 2011.

He continued to be provocative, hanging a poster of Stalin in his Brussels office and fiercely opposing efforts by Russia's ex-Soviet neighbours Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO.

He was blacklisted and sanctioned by the United States in 2014 over Russia's annexation of Crimea and in 2019, NASA put off a planned visit by Rogozin to the US after protests from lawmakers.

He had recently joked that Russia would send a mission to the moon to "verify" whether or not NASA lunar landings ever took place.

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