The ears of U.S. space entrepreneur Elon Musk should by all rights have been burning furiously on Thursday, when he became one of the most discussed topics at the InSpace forum and conference in Moscow.

At the opening discussion, devoted to the relationship between Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos and the country’s burgeoning private space industry, Musk’s name was brought up time and again as an example of a resounding success story of cooperation between the U.S. government and private sector.

Dauria Aerospace's Sergei Ivanov (right), talks to Moscow Space Club president Sergei Zhukov at the forum.

“When it is said that more and more private companies are entering the space industry, we mean primarily the experience we see before us of Elon Musk and his company,” said Valentin Uvarov, director of commercial projects in space exploration at United Rocket and Space Corporation, a state-owned entity aimed at reforming Russia’s ailing space industry.

Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the aim of reducing space transport costs and ultimately, of colonizing Mars. The company has flown several successful missions to resupply the ISS, having won a $1.6 billion contract from NASA to do so, and is valued at more than $10 billion. In December, SpaceX successfully launched a rocket that then returned to Earth and landed in an upright position, ready to be reused, in what Musk hailed as a “revolutionary moment.” 

The significance of NASA’s support for the private company was not lost on the other industry experts taking part in the panel discussion.

“Musk’s SpaceX is also a NASA product: that company would not exist without NASA’s massive support,” said Sergei Ivanov, general director of Dauria Aerospace, one of Russia’s first private space companies and by far its most successful. Dauria, which manufactures low-cost satellites, has sold two of its satellites to a U.S. company.  

"Space is often associated with some kind of romantic idea. For me, space is about money, about a market, so it's the same everywhere."

Partners or rivals?

So far, Russia is light years away from that kind of cooperation. It was only toward the end of last year that Roscosmos said it would allow private companies access to the space services market, and only by 2020.

But Roscosmos communications director Igor Burenkov insists that the state corporation understands the need for private space companies and does not see them as rivals.

“It’s no secret that the reforms that are underway now might not have occurred if the state had not acknowledged that the Russian space industry is in a systemic crisis,” he said. “The state of our enterprises is far from ideal,” he added, referring to a spate of rocket and cargo spacecraft failures in recent years.

But the U.S. experience in successful public-private partnerships cannot simply be transferred to Russia, participants of the discussion agreed, due to both historical differences between the two countries’ space industries and contemporary differences between the investment available in each country.

“In the history of space development [in both countries], the first bricks were laid by the state, with state money,” said Mikhail Tsygankov, key partnerships director for the space technologies and telecommunications cluster of the Skolkovo Foundation.

“In the U.S., a lot of parts of the chain were private businesses. But in the Soviet Union, it was a different situation,” he said.

Burenkov agreed, saying that unlike other countries, Russia was still making its first steps in the development of private entrepreneurship.

“Focusing on the market and the client – these are things that until recently the space industry just didn’t think about,” he said. 

Visitors to the InSpace forum examine the stand of Sputnix, another resident of the Skolkovo space cluster. Photo:

Call to investors

The Roscosmos representative said more private investment was needed for Russia to successfully commercialise its space industry, pointing out that Musk did not make his fortune in space transport, but, on the contrary, invested in it what he had made earlier in web software and PayPal.

“We can talk about foreign entrepreneurs till we’re blue in the face, but they risk huge sums of money,” Burenkov said. “I don’t see anyone here with that kind of money willing to risk it. We have Skolkovo [which provides grants and conditions aimed to support tech startups such as Dauria Aerospace, a resident of the Skolkovo Foundation’s space cluster], and that’s great, but we don’t see any [private investors] who are prepared to take a risk.”

Dauria’s Ivanov begs to differ, citing the example of fellow Skolkovo resident Lin Industrial - which makes ultralight rockets and which has a private investor – as well as his own company. “We got 30 million dollars from our investors, that’s a huge amount of money for us,” he said.

“Often space is associated with some kind of romantic idea. For me, space is about money, about a market, so it’s the same everywhere,” said Ivanov. “The only difference is that there tend to be negative attitudes to entrepreneurs here, but apart from that, everything’s the same.”

'The undertaking of the entire human race'

Despite strained relations with the West, the experts present agreed that cooperation in space is vital to the industry’s development.

“We’re similar in a lot of ways [to the U.S.] and should learn from each other,” said Sergei Zhukov, president of the Moscow Space Club, a discussion platform for industry professionals and those interested in space exploration.

“But we should remember that we’re a great country and we should also be rivals,” he added. “We should learn from them, of course, but we should also wake up and start competing with them.”

Burenkov said he wanted to see anything but a return to the space race.

“Space is a zone of international cooperation, and the state corporation intends to maintain that,” he said.

“How much money was wasted on pointless competition? How great was our country, with all those victories, but how did people live across the country? Cooperation leads to results,” he said, citing the year-long space mission shared by Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko and U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly, who returned to Earth this week from their year in space.

“Space exploration is the undertaking of the entire human race. If we worked [together] on Earth like we do in space, we would live in a different world.”