On February 27, during a meeting between Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Valeriy Chaly, and the head of the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA), James Bridenstine, the US side expressed interest in including Ukrainian companies in projects pertaining to lunar exploration (Tvzvezda.ru, February 28). Reportedly, a joint intergovernmental agreement based on the already existing Ukrainian-US working group on space, established in 2016, could be prepared. So far, the main result stemming from this three-year-old initiative has been the “Antares” project Orbital Launch Vehicle, which is being currently used for commercial purposes. Importantly, the development of its first stage core was co-performed by the Yuzhnoye Design Office (Yuzhmash), famous for developing and producing the Zenit family of rockets (Topwar.ru, February 28).
State-owned Yuzhmash remains the main driver of Ukraine’s wider space industry. And on February 25, the company announced it was initiating work on a floating (offshore) spacecraft launch platform. According to the rocket-maker’s director, Serhiy Voyt, for now Ukraine does not have a spacecraft launch platform of its own; if, however, this initiative works out as planned, it will considerably increase Ukraine’s space-related capabilities and enhance economic opportunities. In fact, part of the initiative is already being implemented at the Pallada Kherson State Plant (crucially, the state-owned defense-industry umbrella concern Ukroboronprom is actively involved in the project), where the first floating structures are being produced. Voyt also expressed confidence that recently initiated projects (including 12 Zenit-3SL rockets) (Ukrinform.ru, February 25) as well as growing international outreach, such as the prospect of joint projects with Elon Musk’s SpaceX (Uawire.org, February 26), could have significant and long-lasting positive effects on the Ukrainian space sector.
These forecasts, however, might turn out to be an optical illusion if a key condition is not fulfilled—attracting greater foreign direct investment (FDI) and private initiative. Otherwise, the government may not be able to single-handedly complete the ambitious, yet costly space-sector endeavors, including the above-mentioned Ukrainian-built launch platform. The most obvious solution to this problem has been to introduce so-called “public-private partnerships” (Rosbalt, February 13). And analysis of current trends in the Ukrainian space industry reveals that the first fruits of this nascent alliance may already be underway. This was showcased on January 29, during the forum “From Kruty to Brussels: We Are Going Our Way,” attended by President Petro Poroshenko (President.gov.ua, January 29). Within the scope of this event, Ukrainian entrepreneur Max Polyakov, the owner of the Firefly Aerospace company (headquartered in Dnipro), stated that his enterprise is already working on projects pertaining to the integration of private initiatives with Ukraine’s state-backed space-industry sector. Specifically, according to Polyakov, the company is currently developing Alpha and Beta launch vehicles, with the former to be tested in the second half of 2019—an event where “President Poroshenko would be very much welcome to attend.” Indeed, Polyakov’s company might serve as a useful example of private initiative in an industry that has traditionally been seen in Ukraine as the prerogative of the state. Firefly Aerospace now includes a whole complex of enterprises consisting of up-to-date joint R&D centers (with the US). Polyakov also noted that a launch of one rocket (capable of delivering cargoes of 1–4 tons) will cost $8 million–$15 million, which is significantly less than currently paid by the US ($60 million for a Falcon launch) (Rosbalt, February 13; Ain.ua, February 16).
Another interesting initiative was voiced on February 5, by the founder of the company Space Logistics Ukraine, Dmytro Leheza, who announced a decision to build the fist private spaceport in Ukraine. According to Leheza, nicknamed the “Ukrainian Elon Musk” (Ukrinform.ua, February 6), in order to achieve real progress in the domestic space industry, Ukraine needs to introduce specific legislation, enabling private enterprises to work in the state’s space programs. To popularize his company’s space projects, Leheza organized the all-Ukrainian tour “Space Ukraine: What WE do!” He argued that “if Ukraine, which still positions itself as a space power, does not launch its own space satellite within 2–3 years, we will never be able to catch up with other countries” (Glavpost.com, February 7). In this regard, of particular importance will be the creation of the much-promoted spaceport, which is to have a huge impact on various branches of the Ukrainian economy: from intelligence gathering for military purposes to quite lucrative commercial projects (Rosbalt, February 13). Such proposals, however, will remain little more than pipe dreams as long as the Ukrainian government continues to ignore the “legislative aspect” and finally allow a “full disclosure of the industry for private capital” (Aboutspacejornal.net, February 10).
Ukraine’s prospects in the space industry can all too easily invite excessive illusions. Yet, despite the chronic problems that have threatened to destroy the whole sector, until now the country has managed to preserve it. As stated by Volodymir Nistiuk from Yuzhmash, “Ukraine is now positioned quite well, since there is a possibility to simultaneously use Soviet-legacy and remaining infrastructure along with American advancements. It is the point where American investments meet up with inexpensive Ukrainian ‘brains,’ a qualified workforce, and full state support” (Rosbalt, February 13). Incidentally, Ukraine’s rich traditions in the space industry are acknowledged by Russia’s own high-ranking officials and experts. For instance, army general and former commander of the Russian Air Force Petr Deynekyn argued that, during the Soviet period, “Ukraine used to be an aviation power… where excellent missiles were produced” (see EDM, March 2, 2017; Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier, February 13, 2017). As noted by Leheza, Ukraine has not lost its potential, but “has come very close to it.” The Space Logistics Ukraine founder continued, “[I]f young talented engineers are to choose to work for free at SpaceX versus the Ukrainian state sector, they will choose the former,” since there is greater opportunity to gain valuable experience with the US space-launch firm, compared to domestic enterprises (Narodna-pravda.ua, February 7).