It's been exactly fifty-two years since man first ventured into space. That event, accomplished by Yuri Gagarin, became one of the pinnacles of Soviet rule. For eight years, until Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon, Russian power in space seemed premier. In the intervening five decades, Russia has remained a superpower in space. They joined America in the first international docking in space, built the first permanent space station, and have become the sole vector for delivering astronauts into orbit. But, as economic troubles slow the nation, Russia has begun to slip behind in the race for innovation. High profile failures have decimated their Mars research program and an aging-but-reliable Soyuz capsule has remained in service for nearly half a century.
On the anniversary of their greatest triumph, Russian president Vladimir Putin has announced that his country plans to get back on top. With a boost of over $50 billion in the next seven years, Russia will revamp its launch facilities, energize its research programs, and step up plans for unmanned exploration. Central to this plan is the construction of a new space complex on Russian soil. Since Gagarin's pioneering trip, all Russian rockets have departed from a base in Kazakhstan. No more - by 2015, unmanned missions will launch from a new Russian base. Three years later, manned trips will follow.
You could argue, however, that Russia is still premier in the manned space initiative. After all, only they can still launch astronauts. Where they're falling behind isn't in sending people to space, but robotic explorers. The 2011 loss of the Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars was but the latest of more than a dozen failures to study the red planet. This infusion of research dollars should help modernize their assembly facilities and increase their chances of future success.
There's no doubt that a strong Russia in space is good for the world. With budgets worldwide contracting, any nation willing to step up and lead with a spirit of international cooperation should be embraced wholeheartedly. We need more money, more experience, and more research to get where we want to go. Russia can offer all of that, and I applaud them for stepping up to deliver.