Yet through the support of an emerging space superpower, Russia still has plans for the moon. In 2021, Chinese and Russian officials announced that they would partner to set up a research station on the lunar south pole in the 2030s. Lots of work will precede that base, though. First, China has embarked on a series of robotic missions to collect data and scope out potential landing spots. The next of those, Chang’e 6, includes a lander and sample return mission and is planned for 2025. Russia’s first robotic mission for the program, Luna 25, has been delayed for years but could finally launch in July. That lander will prove a crucial test for Roscosmos, whose handful of missions beyond Earth orbit since the late 1980s have fared poorly. Those mostly Mars-focused probes either failed to leave Earth orbit or didn’t reach their destinations.

That track record, compared to the successes of China’s ramped-up space program, is a reason for skepticism about the Chinese-Russian collaboration, says Zak. “Why would China cooperate with Russia when the Russian space program is in a weaker state?” he says. “The mismatch in technical capabilities is so huge that I don’t see what China can get from this.” While China may have political reasons for collaborating with Russia, Zak says, its space program has little to gain from working with its Russian counterpart.


As its civil space program collapses, Russia has been heavily investing in its military one. The country has highly developed anti-satellite weapons, including a missile system tested in November 2021 that generated thousands of bits of debris in orbit. (So have previous tests by the US, China, and India, leading to an international call for a moratorium on them.) Russia has also used electronic weapons against space systems and has been testing laser weapons that could be used against satellites. Russia appears to have tested a potential weapon prototype in 2021, with a “nesting doll”-like spacecraft, Kosmos 2543, which released a sub-satellite in orbit, says Victoria Samson, the Washington office director for the Secure World Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank.

Like McClintock, Samson says Russia’s back-to-back technical issues are a worrisome sign for its civil space program, and so is the likelihood that it may soon be without a space station. “There is a national prestige factor for countries with space programs,” she says. The Soviet Union may have put the first human into space—but now, 60 years later, Russia faces a near-future in which it is no longer able to do that. “That’s a slide,” says Samson.