Some space facilities are built in secret (military) or with little fanfare perhaps because they’re not very ambitious. But when the Russian Prime Minister (V. Putin) announces the building of a new $800 million spaceport – or cosmodrome, it’s clearly intended to be very public. This fits with the avowed use for a new ‘civilian’ (read: commercial) space facility. The Russians have done their market research: They frequently get business dropped by other space agencies (e.g. American shuttle and ISS support) and there is a need for a somewhat smaller but expert and efficient launch site for all kinds of commercial space activity. The Russians are developing a track-record in this area. It’s also relatively profitable.
The new facility, called the Vostochny Cosmodrome (vostochny means “eastern” in Russian), will be built in an interesting area – the Amur valley of far eastern Russia – significantly close to the Chinese border. Developing the Amur region has been a dream of Russian governments since at least the mid 1800’s. It’s remote, but has always seemed to have promise especially for agriculture. Placing a major space facility in the area helps Russian regional development policy, especially because it would make Russian less dependent on leasing the Soviet built Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
While $800 million sounds like a lot of money, it’s ‘seed corn’ for a project of this magnitude. (How much the American space facilities at Cape Canaveral have cost over the years is not readily available, but it surely runs into many tens of billions of dollars.) However, it has been characteristic of Russia’s quasi-privatized space agency Roscosmos to operate on a more ad hoc basis than say, NASA, and cater to ‘space business,’ such as flying wealthy men into space at about $20 million a trip, or organizing re-supply missions for the International Space Station. The Vostochny cosmodrome will be new, leaner, and even more commercially oriented. Principle construction will occur during 2012 with first launches expected by 2015 and manned flights by 2018.
Considering that the United States, the bastion of entrepreneurial effort and privatization of government work, is resisting support for its own commercial space development – the Russians may have placed a good bet on being able to continue picking up new business as it comes along.