The war in Ukraine threatens the development of the space industry and not only because of economic sanctions against Russia. Ukraine plays a major role in the global space sphere, and their achievements are often overshadowed by American, Russian and Chinese space exploits.
It is possible that many projects and spaceships would not exist without the Ukrainian space industry. Ukraine has been an important player in the global space industry since the 1950s. Even today, he is considered a leading designer and manufacturer of spacecraft, rocket engines, and aerospace electronic components.
One of the leading Ukrainian manufacturers of space equipment is the state-owned company Yuzhmash, which works closely with Yuzhnoye, the Ukrainian designer of satellites and missiles. Both companies were founded in the 1950s and operate under the auspices of the State Space Agency of Ukraine (SSAU).
A major role on the global space scene
If you’ve been following the world’s space feats, you’ve heard of the European Space Agency (ESA’s) Vega family of rockets, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. The Vega consists of a Ukrainian rocket engine that detaches from the rocket and then transfers the payload to the desired orbit.
The Vega carrier vehicle is used to launch smaller payloads, and a newer version of the Vega-C is currently in development and expected to be rolled out towards the end of the year. Another important family of missiles, designed by Yuzhnoye, is the Zenit, which replaced the aging Soviet-era Cyclone and Soyuz missiles. After 71 successful launches, the last Zenit rocket took off in December 2017.
Since its first flight in the 1960s, the Soyuz family has been the world’s most widely used launch vehicle. From the end of the Space Shuttle in 2011 until the SpaceX Falcon 9 mission in 2020, Soyuz rockets were the only launch vehicle approved to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
The ISS constantly needs a new supply of supplies and equipment. To do this, they use various spacecraft, such as SpaceX Dragon, Russian Progress or Cygnus, carried by the Antares rocket, designed under the auspices of the American company Northrop Grumman and Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye.
In addition, parts of the rocket engine technology currently being developed by the German start-up Rocket Factory Ausburg, which is trying to manufacture the world’s cheapest missile, come from the Ukrainian company Yuzhmash.
Ukrainian “Rocket City”
Yuzhnoy and Yuzhmash are headquartered in the southeastern city of Dnipro, which has earned the nickname “Rocket City” for its thriving aerospace industry. In the current clashes, the city of Dnipro remained intact until recently, and on March 11, air raids were reported that destroyed part of the city’s infrastructure. Both space companies were not affected by the attacks.
“I think they are avoiding them at the moment because they want to invade and use them for their own purposes,” Volodymyr Usov, the former head of the Ukrainian Space Agency, said of the Russians. “If we win before everything is destroyed, we will maintain this research and production ability. However, the situation can change every day. Two attacks on Yozmash and the damage is irreparable.”
Osova is not only concerned with the threat of irreparable technological loss. The facilities, which are also developing a new generation of solid-fuel rocket engines, store huge amounts of toxic chemicals used to propel rockets. In the event of an attack, the chemicals will seep into the environment and cause significant environmental damage.
“It would be a major environmental disaster,” Ussouf said. “This is a really big company with a lot of capacity, a lot of capacity, a lot of special fluids and rocket fuel. This would be a major environmental disaster not only for Ukraine, but for the whole of Europe.”
When it comes to Ukrainian-Russian relations in the space sector, Usov makes it clear that Russia, in his opinion, has been undermining Ukraine’s ambitions and interests for years.
Russia has always wanted us to be its partner and to do things on its own terms.
He said Russia has used its political influence and pressured Brazil to withdraw from development of the Cyclone-4M spacecraft, which the two countries were building together for Brazil’s proposed spaceport in Alcantara. The project was discontinued in 2015, one year after the Crimean lands were annexed to Russia. In an official statement, representatives of Brazil cited concerns about the project budget, the current financial situation of the two countries, and the future of the commercial launch market as reasons for the resignation.
Dnipro Aerospace Development Center of Ukraine
During the Soviet era, Dnipro was one of the main centers of the aerospace, nuclear and military industries and played a major role in the development and production of ballistic missiles for the Soviet Union. One of the most powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) used during the Cold War was the R-36, which later became the basis of the Tsyklon launch vehicles. Both the R-36 and Tsyklon were designed under Yuzhnoye’s direction and manufactured at Yuzhmash plants.
Foreign companies have also noted the potential of the Dnipro aerospace industry such as Texas-based Firefly Aerospace. The company was rescued from bankruptcy in 2017 by Max Polyakov, who opened the Firefly Aerospace Research and Development Center in Dnipro the following year. Polyakov hopes that the purchase will be able to combine Ukrainian and American space expertise and create a company capable of making rockets, satellites and landing gear.
In September last year, Firefly carried out its first launch. Their rocket, called Alpha, did not reach orbit, but it still performed well on the first attempt at a new spacecraft. Soon after the launch, several US government agencies began raising concerns about the state security of owner Max Polyakov and actively obstructed the company in the next launch of the Alpha missile.
Due to pressure from the US government, Polyakov was forced to give up his largest stake in the company a good month ago.
Ukraine’s space program also includes projects such as space missions to remove space debris and the development of asteroid impact protection systems. Under the auspices of their many years of work, they have successfully launched a number of communication satellites for imaging and scientific purposes, and are still in the process of developing a new Cyclone-4M space launch vehicle based on Zenith and Tsyklon.
The Ukrainian space agency, with 16,000 employees, has the same dimensions as the US space agency NASA.