Solid Fuels and Fluidity of Thought: Denis Makarov on Space Policy

Denis Makarov is a first year master’s student at Socioeconomic and Political Development of Modern Asia Program at HSE.

Solid Fuels and Fluidity of Thought: Denis Makarov on Space Policy

Denis has a beloved and kind personality but most importantly, amongst his peers he is known as a “Space Guy”. In this interview we ask Denis how he got interested in space policy during his undergraduate studies, the nuances of doing space research and his inter galactic travel itinerary.

How does one end up with space studies from IR?

It's kind of a fun story, because space is not really something you study in IR degree. On my second year I had to pick a topic for the course paper, and after some debates with my advisor, decided to write about Elon Musk and his companies. Mainly the decision was made because it allowed me to insert memes into the work. But it just so happened to be the year when SpaceX performed one of its most significant launches - the first Crew Dragon flight, first manned launch from the American soil in the last 10 years. I watched the live broadcast with my family, and I guess something clicked in me. From then on, I started buying books on space, making all my works in university somehow connected to it and such. Props should be given to my scientific advisor as well, Sergei Vladimirovich Demidenko, as he fervently supported this unusual hobby.

But actually most of the works I read on space studies are in the field of International Relations, and hopefully this sphere will become more popular in Russia as well.

You graduated from RANEPA, apart from your advisor that you mentioned what was the general response to you choosing such a unique topic for your dissertation?

As for my group mates, people were generally understanding and I guess they liked to hear me talking about space. Or pretended that they did:). I always had interesting insights into space policy and they saw it as me following my interests. As for my professors, generally they more or less were indifferent to it, they just did not oppose it. My American studies professor helped me alot as weel because he allowed me to pick space related topics for all of my reports. But of course he opposed alot of topics as well. Also, he helped me publish my article on contemporary American programme on Russian International Affairs Council, which in turn helped me in my portfolio competition for applying to HSE; Big props to him!!

In general my professors did not know what to do with me. They had alot of criticism for works of other students but when it came to me they were silent and just nodded along. They helped me with methodology but I could tell that they felt lost with my topic. I had hoped that they would criticise my work and help me, there were alot of things I wrote in my bachelor’s thesis that I did not feel sure about. But unfortunately they could not really help me out.

Do you feel more comfortable writing about your interests at HSE?

I have to say in terms of like HSE and space, I haven't really done much to understand whether I feel comfortable or not. I see some positive trends because when I proposed my research topic for the master’s-doctorate track to the head of our department, she actually helped me to form my topic a bit better. She had some genuine constructive crticism and found me a scientific advisor. When I saw the comments of this advisor on my works I trully thought I was in heaven!  He had some things to say about the content of the thesis rather than methodology. I knew from that moment that he understood my topic at a deeper level than all my previous professors. This is why currently I feel almost comfortable doing space policy research at HSE.

Of course I need to mention here that initially when applying to the Development of Modern Asia programme I had not thought about the difficulties of writing about space policy in a orientalism programme! Now that I think about it I got kind of lucky actually. Even during the process of my enrolment I wrote my entrance essay about Chinese and Japanese Space Policy. I got some feedback actually from a HSE professor about my essay, it is was very nice and form that moment I thought that perhaps HSE is the best place to go for my aspirations.

Does space have any personal significance to you? A yearning to see what is out there, maybe?

My attachment to space is 100% personal, for sure. It is probably not even so much about what is out there (although I'm properly fascinated by the structure of our Universe) but rather by what is right here - us, humans, coming together to learn more about the world and ourselves. Creating unthinkable devices, managing to peek into the farthest parts of this vast world, living in the environment where it's impossible to survive - and, above all, transcending the political borders to work together on something truly beautiful.

Given the possibility to choose which planet in our solar system would you visit first and why?

It is an interesting question. I guess my planet of choice is not really a planet it is a satellite, Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. What makes it really interesting is that Enceladus is basically a big pile of water covered in ice crust, and there is a very good chance that there is some kind of life organism under the ice crust. Unfortunately we still do not have any projects to mine the crust and see if there are any organism. Because of this I guess it would be very cool to visit it. Also there are these meme videos on YouTube about earth without atmosphere, like other planets that look very horrific and that is why I think seeing Saturn from Enceladus would be very cool, it is literally a big ball of gas.

Is Russia on the right trajectory when it comes to space policies?

There is a concept in space policy, called "space power". Space power is basically the ability of a state to achieve its goals in and through space, and one of its core elements is political will. I feel like political will is what's currently missing in our space policy, unfortunately. Russia has some fascinating projects in planetary exploration, manned space flight and other spheres - but the funding is very limited, and the goals are frequently changing. Hopefully, the new head administrator of Roscosmos will bring the change needed.

Please, name some projects you personally want to see Russia gets involved in.

The problem is if we talk about international projects I would rather if Russia focused on its internal space policy. Recently I saw announcement that Russia would be able to launch  a moon-rover by 2030, I am not sure about this. Russian space program is very advanced and is a source of pride for our country; but even we have to sometimes do some cost benefit analysis and do projects that really matter. I would be very happy to see the Venus Aspiration Programe come into fruition. USSR was the only country that landed a spacecraft on Venus, if we can do it again, I would be very proud and scientifically the possibly to know if there are organisms on Venus is very cool.

In terms of international projects, I would just be very happy to see Russia in any kind of international project. Space is a very unique domain in my opinion, that is perhaps not as zero-sum as international relations. Russian cosmonauts are going to be sent to ISS by Space X rockets soon, this is very heart warming for me.

Your dissertaion was about Chinese space policy. As you know by now academia is fascinated by all things Chinese and how interesting they are. Is there anything unique about the way China does its space policy?

China is very interesting indeed when it comes to space. I guess most people think of China as yet a developing country, but in terms of space China is very advanced and on par with the US. China was excluded from the Soviet space program after the SIno-Soviet Split. They had to developed their own technologies, of course initially based on older Soviet models.  Later in 2010s US started to forbid China from some levels of space cooperation. But Chinese managed to successfully run a massive space program, case in point they have their OWN space station. China has a unique way of selling its space program abroad, almost in some correlation with Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China unlike the US does not care much about political ties as a requirement for space cooperation. Russia and China cooperating is not surprising of course but even European Space Agency is slowly shifting towards cooperation with China.

On the other hand the Chinese are very secretive about their space program, their civil program is basically a part of the military program. For example they never stream their launches live, unlike other countries that do it for publicity. Perhaps China fears failures during launches and only publish news about their launches after the fact.

Are you going to participate in a conference pretty soon, can you tell us about that?

Yep, it's a conference on cooperation and competition in space, held by MSU and Roscosmos. I'm mostly thrilled, as this is my first official step into both the academic life, and sphere of space studies. Definitely not the last though!

Interview by

Danial Khataei