On April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made the very first manned flight into space, placing the USSR at the head of the star race. With this feat, the Soviet giant asserts the power of its model against its American rival. Six decades later, Russia hopes to distinguish itself again on the space front, with the launch Friday, August 11, of Luna-25, a lander intended to land on the Moon.

The Russian space agency Roscosmos claimed that a Soyuz launcher had been "assembled" on the Vostochny cosmodrome in the Russian Far East for the launch of Luna-25, which will land near the south pole of the Moon, "in difficult terrain". The flight is expected to last between "four and a half days and five and a half days."

His mission? "Take samples, analyze the soil, conduct long-term scientific research," according to the statement from the Russian space agency. "Luna-25 is part of a program that prepares for moon landings," says Xavier Pasco, an expert on space policy issues and director of the Foundation for Strategic Research. With this programme, the Russians want to show that they are in the race, despite the situation in Ukraine where they seem stuck."

A project that looks like a sea serpent

With Luna-25, Russia is playing big. This is his first launch of a craft on the Moon since 1976, in a context very different from the time of Soviet splendor. Undermined by debt and corruption, Roscosmos, the Russian agency, is struggling to carry out its projects. Its last public failure was last February, when the coolant of a Soyuz spacecraft leaked.

The Luna-25 mission itself looks like a sea serpent: developed in 1997 in the rubble of the Soviet Union, its launch is planned for the 2010s, but meets successive disappointments. "I don't know how many Luna-25 launches have been planned!" confesses René Pischer, representative of the European Space Agency (ESA) to Russia.

The Russian space project has also come up against the more recent ups and downs of history. Initially involved in the launch of Luna-25 but also Luna-26 and especially Luna-27, an ambitious mission to exploit lunar resources scientifically, the European Space Agency (ESA), ended all collaboration after the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

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René Pischer describes: "On Luna-27, we provided two things: an aid for drilling, and navigation tools that help achieve the most accurate landing possible." The rift between the two organizations has also dealt a terrible blow to ExoMars, an ambitious European program to explore the red planet.

Today, European collaboration with Russia exists only in the form of vestiges. "The level of activity in Russia is much lower," says René Pischer. There remains the collaboration around the International Space Station, and the withdrawal of material related to the ExoMars mission. It's sad."

Jewel of the Soviet legacy

So, without help from Europe, what are the chances of success for the Luna-25 mission? "So far, the Russian space sector has lived thanks to international cooperation," says Isabelle Sourbès-Verger, geographer and director of research at the CNRS, specialist in comparative analysis of national space policies. The Russian agency has become accustomed to using components of American or European origin. He needs to regain that competence. So it's going to be interesting to see the outcome of this launch: it's a difficult and complicated mission to the south pole of the moon, and it's been a long time since Russia has successfully completed an exploratory space mission."

If successful, Russia would symbolically reconnect with its past. Named after an illustrious series of Soviet missions, Luna-25 openly carries this legacy. "Vladimir Putin has never been passionate about space but it is one of the jewels of the Soviet heritage," says Isabelle Sourbès-Verger. This is one of its great areas of prestige, along with nuclear power."

In April 2022, during a trip to the Vostochny cosmodrome, the Russian head of state also recalled that the USSR had succeeded in 1961 in sending Yuri Gagarin into space despite "total" sanctions taken against it.

To regain its place at the center of the space game, Russia can count on an old ally: China. Having become a major player in the conquest of space, Beijing plans to install jointly with Moscow a permanent station on the surface of the Moon.

An alliance forged for a long time, since the end of the Soviet Union, and strengthened since 2014, in response to the American steamroller. The United States remains by far the country that allocates the most resources to space exploration, and the involvement of private players, such as Elon Musk's Space X or Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, has strengthened the competition in the race for the stars.

"The big deal in space is the return to the moon," says Xavier Pasco. By turning to this activity, Russia is sending a geopolitical message. For now, it is a scientific and peaceful issue, but this type of major program, which will occupy us for the next 30 years, will probably end up having more political aspects."

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Faced with this reconfiguration, which has the appearance of tension between blocs, it is difficult to see where international collaboration takes place. Since the fall of the Soviet bloc, space remained one of the few areas of cooperation between geopolitical rivals; The United States, Russia and Europe were working together on the International Space Station (ISS). It is coming to an end, and Russia has already announced its withdrawal from the ISS after 2024. End of an era?

Not so fast. Isabelle Sourbès-Verger nuances: "We had the period of the space race until 1970, then a period of cooperation, with the disappearance of the USSR and the recovery of Russian resources. In 2025 or 2030, this will be over, and several national programs will develop independently. But that doesn't mean the end of all solidarity." Human spaceflights, expensive missions with complex logistics, can only be accomplished in teams, especially in the case of missions to Mars, she points out. "We must keep this earthly solidarity in the face of the difficulty of the challenge."

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