Russia's space legacy is 'a shadow of its former self' — and Ukraine invasion isn't helping

Russia was once the leader in space firsts. It had the first satellite, the first human in space, the first woman in space, the first probe to the moon and the first spacewalk. But where are they now?

Russia's actions are the main reason for its isolation, space historians say

The Russian Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft is seen here lifting off from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, on Oct. 5, 2021. Though Russia is a partner in the International Space Station, its space program is a 'shadow of its former self,' one expert says. (Roscosmos/Handout via Reuters)

"I see Earth! It is so beautiful!"

With those words, spoken by Yuri Gagarin, a new age for humanity was ushered in: the Space Age.

On April 12, 1961, 27-year-old Gagarin, a Russian pilot, became the first person to escape the bonds of Earth and orbit our planet. 

Those words were a sharp blow to the United States who, three years earlier, had been beaten by the Soviet Union in its attempt to get a satellite into orbit. 

But the Soviet Union wasn't done yet. 

While the U.S. followed Gagarin's flight with two of its own — Alan Shepard would become the first American in a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, and John Glenn would follow as the first American to orbit Earth the following February — the Soviets would continue to dominate the space race right up until the Americans landed on the moon.

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"The Soviet space program was quite significant," said Asif Siddiqi, a professor and space historian at Fordham University in New York. "They had a whole slew of firsts early on in the space race: the first satellite, first human being in space, first woman in space, the first probe to the moon, the first spacewalk, I mean, you can just go on. It's endless."

Yuri Gagarin, a pilot from the Soviet Union, became the first person to travel into space on April 12, 1961. (ESA)

Today, Russia's space program is but a whisper of its former self. And its invasion of Ukraine — which has resulted in threats and barbs lofted toward the U.S. from the Russian space agency's head, Dmitry Rogozin — may have relegated its space legacy to the history books as it alienates past scientific partners and focuses its research on warfare.

A military focus

Rogozin's warnings have come in the form of tweets. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he's told Americans that they'd have to use broomsticks to get to the International Space Station (ISS) after Russia stopped the sale of some rocket engines to the country.

While NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei was on the space station awaiting a ride home on a Russian capsule, Rogozin suggested Russia would leave him stranded. (The astronaut returned safely on March 30.)

Rogozin even shared a strange video showing a Russian segment of the station detaching, leaving Americans behind, suggesting that Russia would opt out of participating with the 15 countries involved in the space station.

"He's such a corrosive personality, tweeting all sorts of crazy stuff," Siddiqui said. "A good manager would have just kept their mouth shut and kept doing whatever, because their goal right now is: how does the [space] program survive?" 

"A good manager would have just started to say that, you know, space is above politics; we're trying to keep the program going. This is about peaceful exploration, science … but he didn't."

While Russia has continued to maintain a presence on the ISS, alongside other countries, including Canada, it is the American space program — led by NASA — that has been a stalwart in space exploration. (The Americans did, however, rely on Russian Soyuz rockets to get to the space station between 2011 and 2020 after NASA mothballed its space shuttle program.)

Russia, meanwhile, appears to have stepped away from a focus on human spaceflight and exploration to one that is more geared toward military applications, Siddiqui said.

"Space is not a priority and has never been a priority for the Putin government," the space historian said. "But to the extent that space is a priority, they put money into military stuff … like anti-satellite systems and all sorts of weapons and things like that."

And that hasn't been too well received.

On Nov. 15, 2021, Russia fired a missile and destroyed one of its own satellites as part of an anti-satellite test. The fallout was more than 1,500 pieces of trackable debris that not only posed a danger to other satellites but also required astronauts aboard the ISS — including two Russians — to take shelter for fear of debris damaging the station. Countries and agencies condemned the action far and wide.

But Russia made no apologies. And now with the invasion of Ukraine has isolated the country more than ever.

The European Space Agency (ESA) had several missions that they were working on with Roscosmos, including three lunar landers as part of the Luna mission. But the agency has since halted operations with Roscosmos.

"The Russian aggression against Ukraine and the resulting sanctions put in place represent a fundamental change of circumstances and make it impossible for ESA to implement the planned lunar cooperation," the agency said in a statement released April 13. 

Roscosmos also pulled its team out of launch facilities in Kourou, French Guiana, which is considered the European space port.

These recent developments have left Russia alone in a space economy that is now booming.

Still a 'major player'

The Russian space program has faced many challenges since the collapse of the Soviet Union but never more so since President Vladimir Putin gained power. 

"Their space program has had a lot of rough sledding in recent years. The economic problems have affected the space program. People are aging," said Chris Gainor, a spaceflight historian and past president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. "And then the sanctions that have been striking Russia's economy since the first go-round with Ukraine in 2014 have also been striking the Russian space program."

Space historian Chris Gainor, seen here in Moscow in 1984. (Submitted by Chris Gainor)

There have been issues with corruption around the construction of a new launch port in Siberia. Putin's biggest critic, Alexei Navalny also went on the attack criticizing Roscosmos' spending

For a space agency that was once the best in the world, it's now facing a host of problems. 

"Post 1991, the Russian space program has been a shadow of its former self," Siddiqui said. But, he noted, "It's still a major player."

And it's now looking to partner with China.

While the U.S., Canada, Europe and several other countries have signed on to the Lunar Gateway project that will see a space station built in lunar orbit to serve as a jumping-off point to the moon and eventually — the hope is — Mars, Russia has opted instead to work with China on a moon base to be built at the moon's south pole.

China is also launching an asteroid sample mission in 2024 that will be using some Russian instruments

These efforts, however, have been pushed by China as it seeks partners, not the other way around.

The crumbling space relationship between the East and the West was not entirely unexpected, according to Siddiqui.

"The writing was on the wall that this relationship would come to an end, mostly because of the Russians," he said. "Already in the 2010s, because of our goals, and because of Putin, I think there was a sense that they're very hard to deal with. And so I think already, before the invasion, people were talking about detangling from the Russians."

Still, its legacy has played a significant role in ongoing space exploration — even if it may fade.

"China's doing some amazing things, and they've also been encouraging their private sector, which I think is important," Gainor said. "Russia could well be left behind in the dust [and] unfortunately, the important part of Russia's contribution to space is going to be kind of left up to space historians like me."


Nicole Mortillaro

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black people in science. You can send her story ideas at