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The Space Race Is Over, But Russian Schadenfreude at American Rocket Troubles Soars

Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Before the smoke cleared from Tuesday’s unsuccessful launch of the Antares cargo rocket in Virginia, a number of Russian media outlets, nationalist bloggers, and regular RuNet users were beaming with national pride. The Americans had screwed up, and in the field of rocketry, where Russian patriotic pride is especially intense.

Russian media outlets have surfaced evidence that the Antares rocket's components aren't Russian, though the missile does include a Russian-made NK-33 engine, modified by American and Ukrainian designers. RT is catching flack online, where social media users noticed that the news network described the Antares as a “Russian-American rocket” in 2013, after several successful launches, but suddenly called it an “American-Ukrainian” missile, when it blew up.

One Twitter user writes:

Such hypocritical scum work at RT. The rocket launches successfully—it’s Russian. It explodes at launch—it’s Ukrainian
[Headline on left: “Launch of Russian-American rocket ‘Antares’ to the International Space Station successfully completed.” Headline on right: “American-Ukrainian space rocket carrier Antares exploded at launch pad in the state of Virginia.”]

In a certain sense, the failed American rocket launch has rekindled Soviet-era pride in Russia's space program. Though it was presumably planned in advance, Russia unveiled its 2018 World Cup logo aboard the International Space Station, days after the explosion of the Antares rocket.

Twitter user Dmitri Rogozhin juxtaposed the Antares failure in the United States to Russia's successful Soyuz-2.1a launch a few days later. Blaming the Antares explosion on a poisoned relationship between Kyiv and Washington, Rogozhin joked:

The US sends Ukraine defective rods for nuclear power plants, and in return it receives defective engines for rockets. What a friendship!
[Image caption reads, “How they send cargo to the International Space station…U.S. / Ukraine (Antares) … Russia (Soyuz-2.1a).”]

Popular pro-Kremlin blogger Anton Korobkov-Zemlyansky also took the opportunity to mock the United States after the failed rocket launch, comparing the event to the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000, when Vladimir Putin told Larry King “it sunk,” when King asked him what happened to the Kursk.

“What happened to your rocket, Barack?”
“It crashed.”

Another user blamed the explosion on “Ukrainian air conditioners,” referring to dubious claims from the Ukrainian government in June that a defective air-conditioning unit attracted a guided missile fired by separatists. (That blast killed eight people.)

It's not so simple!
[Image caption reads, “Ukrainian air conditioners are conquering space!”]

Not at all shy of human tragedy, many Internet users have connected the Antares explosion to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. The vast majority of Russians blame the disaster on the Ukrainian military (not eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian separatists), and many on the RuNet regard the notion of Russian involvement in the plane crash to be a farce. Twitter user Alexey Bushuev, for example, joked that the West would soon blame Russian weaponry for the Antares failure:

Photos have appeared on the Ukrainian Security Services’ website of a Buk missile system moving from the site of the rocket crash towards the Russian border.

Some bloggers employed a little meta humor, to boot:

BREAKING NEWS! According to Kyiv, it was separatists using a Buk missile system who shot down the American Antares rocket. Kyiv is also considering a version of the story involving an air conditioner.

Recently, Russia has discussed moving its foreign-astronauts training program to Crimea. Russia's Deputy Prime Minister has suggested that the US send its astronauts to the International Space Station with a “trampoline,” rather than use Russian rockets. Following the blame-game of the Antares accident and a rumored proposal of additional Russian counter-sanctions that will limit foreign cooperation at the International Space Station, the prospects of additional cooperation between the US and Russia in space are fading quickly.

In Russia's post-Crimea era, almost any event seems capable of sparking spasms of patriotic fervor. Whether it's events in Ferguson or the beheading of an American journalist, Russian Internet users have eagerly commented on—and sometimes celebrated—just about any bad news from the United States. Thanks to the legacy of the Cold War, space travel is a particularly sensitive flashpoint. 

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