Russia has begun discussions about building a space center in Cuba.
By building a base in Cuba, Russia would not only consolidate some of its recent political gains in the Americas, but would gain access to a far better placed launch site than its current Baikonur Cosmodrome.
In return, Cuba would gain access to some Russian technology – in particular, there has been talk of giving Cuba access to the Russian GLONASS satellite navigation system. The development would also provide plenty of jobs and a boost to the struggling Cuban economy.
A Russian foothold in the Americas?
Russia’s announcement is sure to raise alarm bells in Washington – combine the recent decision to hold joint military exercises with Venezuela with rumours that Russian nuclear bombers could soon be based in Cuba and it really does appear that Russia is launching a concerted attempt to develop a foothold in the Americas.
Recent Russian moves in Latin America have partly been inspired by the American reaction to the war in Georgia – sending a warship to deliver aid to Georgia certainly wasn’t appreciated by the Kremlin.
But really we should view this in the wider context of increasing tensions between East and West, and renewed confidence in Russia. For the past couple of decades, Russia has had to gradually withdraw from every geopolitical gain it made during the Tsarist and Soviet eras.
But today Russia is a state that is clearly growing in strength, whereas it seems that American power is on the wane. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that Russia wants to probe American resistance. And what better way to test America’s strength than to start building relationships with rogue states in America’s own backyard?
A space center in Cuba has practical benefits too
The development of a space base in Cuba isn’t just about geopolitics – there are sound technical reasons for building a launch center in the Caribbean too.
At the moment, the Russian space program is almost entirely reliant on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Southern Kazakhstan. Sited in what was, at the time, one of the most Southerly, most remote parts of the Soviet Union, Baikonur was the best site the Soviet space program had access to during the Cold War.
But in today’s more cost conscious world, Baikonur isn’t a particularly good site for launching rockets.
Baikonur is too far North, for one thing. From the perspective of efficiency, the ideal place to launch a satellite is on the equator, where the rotational speed of the earth is greatest. The further a launch site is from the equator, the more fuel is needed to get into orbit.
Baikonur also suffers from being landlocked, which means that spacecraft must fly over populated areas during takeoff. Space travel is getting safer all the time, and Baikonur isn’t in a densely populated area, but the risk of a crash in an inhabited area is far greater at Baikonur than at a launch site near the ocean, where the worst that can happen is that a falling spacecraft would make a big spash.