Vladimir Popovkin, the head Russian space agency Roskosmos, said what he termed "excessive" spending on space research in Russia is being conducted at the expense of the needs of ordinary Russians, according to RT.Com.
Popovkin's critique of space spending
Popovkin suggested that Russia should not always try to be first in all areas of space travel because the funds needed for such an undertaking would not only not be forthcoming, but also might better be spent dealing with more earthly needs of ordinary Russians.
Popovkin's criticism parallels attacks on the United States space program by American liberals, such as Sen. William Proxmire and Sen. Walter Mondale, on space vs. social needs. This is a tradition currently upheld by outgoing Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who has inveighed against colonizing Mars, according to The New Republic.
The space race was partly responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union
Popovkin suggested that the space race, specifically the effort to overcome the Strategic Defense Initiative proposed by President Ronald Reagan and the effort to create a Russian space shuttle, Buran, contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union.
It has been argued in some western conservative circles that SDI helped to place the Soviet Union on the "ash heap of history." Peter Schweizer, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and foreign policy adviser to former Gov. Sarah Palin, lists SDI in his book "Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union" as one of the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Francis Fitzgerald, a journalist who writes from the liberal perspective, disputes this analysis in "Way Out There In the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War." Fitzgerald offered the familiar critique that SDI was technologically unworkable and that Reagan's embrace of it had more to do with his psychology than any real world value it might have.
The idea that the space race and not just SDI helped to end the Soviet Union is not a new one. It was the subject of an alternate history by this writer that depicted an expanded space race in the 1970s with the idea of spending the Soviets into the grave.
Political effects of Popovkin's critique
Popovkin's statement will likely give support to analysts who seek to burnish the late President Reagan's role in bringing about the end of the Soviet Union. However his critique of Russian space spending vs. social spending may give heart to those who want to cut NASA's budget, especially the human space flight portion. It would make the recent suggestion of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson to double the NASA budget a harder sell.
In Russia, how Popovkin's opinions will resonate will be hard to fathom. The once and future President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, will decide how much the Russian Federation spends on space and on social programs; his opinions on the matter carry more weight.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.