On Friday, a Soyuz 2.1b rocket launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, carrying its payload of 36 OneWeb satellites into space. Although Russia’s newest spaceport is located in the far eastern part of the country, it still lies several hundred kilometers from the Pacific Ocean.
This means that as Soyuz rockets climb into space from this location, they drop their stages onto the sparsely populated Yakutia region below. With the Soyuz rocket, there are four boosters that serve as the rocket’s “first stage,” and these drop away about two minutes after liftoff. Then, the “Blok A” second stage drops away later in the flight.
Although the Yakutia region is geographically rugged and sparsely populated, the Russian government does a reasonably good job of establishing drop zones for these stages and keeping them away from residential areas. This is what happened, as usual, with Friday’s launch.
However, as he shared photos and video of these operations on Twitter and Facebook, the chief of Russia’s space program, Dmitry Rogozin, could not help but take what he perceived to be a swipe at SpaceX. In his comments, Rogozin referenced Boca Chica, where SpaceX is building a prototype of its Starship Mars rocket, and wondered whether SpaceX would be capable of working in as harsh conditions as his hardy Russian experts.
“This is not Boca Chica. This is Yakutia, and in winter. The team in the area of the fall of the second stage of the One Web mission was deployed two days before yesterday’s launch. Temperature – minus 52°,” Rogozin wrote on Facebook. “I wonder if gentle SpaceX is able to work in such conditions?”
The irony, as noted by some users in response to Rogozin, is that “gentle” SpaceX engineers do not need to brave inclement weather to recover their rocket stages. They have built a smarter rocket. SpaceX designed the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage to return to land or set itself down on an autonomous drone ship for future reuse. And its second stage can be commanded to reenter the atmosphere and burn up.
Moreover, in Boca Chica, the company is attempting to build an entirely reusable rocket, with both the Super Heavy first stage as well as the Starship upper stage capable of landing and reuse. And while temperatures in South Texas do rarely fall below freezing, the mercury regularly tops 100 degrees during Boca Chica’s summer—when the company’s engineers are working all day and night at their tasks.
Rogozin has had a difficult year. As the Falcon 9 has continued to draw commercial launch business away from Russia’s Proton rocket, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has also ended NASA’s need to buy seats on the Soyuz vehicle for its astronauts to reach the International Space Station. Mostly, Rogozin has reacted to these changing financial circumstances with denial.
But it seems quite clear that, “gentle” though SpaceX may be, the company’s success has irritated the Russian space chief.