American space engineer Zubrin: Currently we’re witnessing the First Space War. Ukraine is only holding because of space-based weaponry, reconnaissance assets
Robert Zubrin: Ukraine will become a participant of the global space exploration movement
Photo by Robert Zubrin / Facebook
I think Ukraine will be a very dynamic space after the war. People are learning a lot of new skills and how to put those skills to use
— Robert, what were your expectations before you arrived in Kyiv? What did you actually see when you arrived?
— I've been to Kyiv twice before. Once during Soviet times, and then again, in 2018. Coming this time in 2023 I expected to see a city under siege. I did not. I saw more soldiers in the streets than in 2018. Also I saw women in uniform collecting aid. There was an air raid today and no one paid any attention. People just stood waiting for the bus or kept doing whatever they were doing. There was no fear evident. And I found it very impressive. It looked like people were more annoyed with traffic jams than with incoming bombs. I don’t know what Putin is thinking he’s accomplishing, because he’s just wasting the ammunition.
— Ukraine has very limited possibilities to organize any conferences or public events nowadays. But anyway, here you’re in Kyiv speaking at the Inscience conference. Does the war stall the progress and innovation or not?
– It took me as long to get from Krakow to Kyiv as to get from Denver to Krakow. I needed to travel to Kyiv by train, instead of a plane. Obviously anyone thinking of setting up a business in Ukraine will face these difficulties. Also Ukraine is limited in maritime trade. Goods are difficult to export, because the trade ships might be hit by a missile.
At the same time, in the moral dimension I think the country is much more unified than it was in 2018. I think that a fair amount of people now have a very strong sense of purpose.
At the same time, you lost a certain amount of talent. Millions of people fled the country. Although you should know that while we were waiting in Poland to get on the train, there was a long line of former refugees returning to Ukraine.
My guess is that it's kind of like the COVID-19 times. At first, people panicked and took extraordinary measures. However, by the second year people were already carrying regular life.
In the opening stages of the war people were much more fearful of the bombings in Kyiv. And now the only thing that was telling me about the raid alert was the app I installed on my phone.
I don’t know the exact numbers. In the news they said two people were killed by missiles these days in Kyiv. Probably, more people were killed in car accidents or by criminal thugs. But it doesn’t make the news, because it’s just part of life. In any city like Denver or Paris a few people are going to be killed each day in auto accidents or something.
Not all the talented people will return to Ukraine after the war. Some people will find higher paying jobs in the West. But I think Ukraine will be a very dynamic space after the war. People are learning a lot of new skills and how to put those skills to use.
We have several thousand F-16s. We could send you a couple of hundred of them and give you air superiority. And certainly that would not impact the American space program anyhow
— Space is a privilege of developed countries. They can dedicate resources, money, time, people, talent, everything to space exploration. What about Ukraine? Does Ukraine have a chance to be a part of this global space exploration movement?
— I think Ukraine can participate in space activities and it must. First of all, there's the immediate necessity. There are a few things that can be done with respect to space that could improve Ukraine's position in the current war. There's a lot more things that could be done in the medium term.
I believe that Ukraine will prevail in the current war. You will push the Russians out. However, Russia is still going to be there. And there’s going to be a next time. I think Ukraine’s position is somewhat analogous to Israel, which is also located in a bad neighborhood.
The job that Ukraine has to do after the war is to strengthen itself greatly to an extent that the next time Russians won’t get anywhere near this point. Russians will be stopped before they can do much.
Currently we’re witnessing the First Space War. Ukraine is only holding because of space-based weaponry, space based communication systems, reconnaissance assets, space-assisted precision-guided munitions. Russia outnumbers Ukraine in terms of forces, soldiers, artillery. They are fighting with a mass. Ukraine is fighting back with precision-guided weapons. You sunk that Moscow cruiser thanks to the guided weapons. You didn’t shoot 50 missiles to hit it. You shot two missiles and both hit it.
Space is the great equalizer here. The United States used space weaponry when we were dealing with Iraq, but those were not decisive. We would have beaten Iraq without space weaponry. No question. We reduced our losses in Iraq and made our operation more efficient, but space weaponry didn’t play any decisive role. Here in Ukraine space weaponry is actually decisive. If future space weapons will as decisive as air power was during World War II.
Ukraine needs to have space capabilities. Right now Ukraine is using America’s space capabilities. But those availability depend on the whims of the American Administration.
In 2014 Ukraine was winning the war in Donetsk. And Russia assembled forces for an encirclement maneuver. They encircled a large number of Ukrainian troops near Donetsk and administered a nasty defeat to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, preventing Ukraine from achieving a victory. There is no way that concentration of Russian armed forces went unnoticed by American reconnaissance satellites. We saw that. However, Barack Obama declined to share the intelligence with Ukraine. And that caused a disaster.
This time America shares space intelligence data with Ukraine. In fact, the responsibility of failing to react fully to the intelligence data fell on the Ukrainian side this time. Ukraine did a certain amount of preparation before the war started. And the only real breakthrough in 2022 happened in the South.
Unfortunately, the United States declined to send arms in advance of invasion, even though we knew it was coming. Many of us were screaming, send them arms now, you can deter the invasion. But at least the United States shared the intelligence.
I love to be able to tell you that you can always count on America, but I can’t tell you that. You can always count there will be a certain number of Americans in your corner, but you can’t count on the fact our voices will prevail. Ukraine needs to have its own space assets. And Ukraine needs to be able to destroy Russian space assets.
Russian satellites passing over our head right now provide reconnaissance information to the Russians, support communications, provide topographic information, which is used to guide cruise missiles. With proper capabilities you could destroy those satellites. The United States is not going to do that for you. The UK is not going to do that for you. Ukraine has to be able to do it.
— Almost all the countries of the world took their sides. A lot of them support Ukraine with weapons, money and other resources. Does it mean that a lot of resources get distracted from space exploration?
– I don’t think so. Sending to Ukraine some missiles certainly will not impact America’s space program. We have 6,000 tanks. And you know what? We’re sending 30 of them to Ukraine. We could send a thousand of tanks and it would have no impact on the American space program. We have several thousand F-16s. They are obsolete fighters from the 1970s. Actually, we use them for target practice to test more modern fighters. We could send you a couple of hundred of them and give you air superiority. And certainly that would not impact the American space program anyhow. We don’t use those fighters for our space program. We use them for military purposes in a limited way.
I mentioned earlier that space is not an extra thing, it is the decisive military theater. When Trump started the Space Force, a lot of people thought it was some kind of a joke. Now we certainly have less people who think that is a joke. This war shows the importance of space superiority. So now, much larger budgets will go into space technologies. Some of that would be strictly military technology, others will be of dual use, for example, launch systems that carry things to space. I’m sure Ukraine will realize that it has the need to develop its own space technologies. I believe in addition to developing its military space capabilities, Ukraine will become a participant of the global space exploration movement.
Rockets were initially developed as long range missiles. That’s the background story behind V2 and American and Soviet ICBMs. It was not too long after that these things started to enable planetary exploration. I think Ukraine is going to want to make itself a virtuoso in space technologies.
Youth loves adventure. And space exploration makes science the great adventure. The great adventure in the United States had with its bold Space Program in the 1960s. When we were reaching for the Moon, the USA doubled the number of science graduates in every field and in some areas tripled. This was because science was a great adventure. That is why I became a scientist. Science develops the country’s intellectual capital, which enables a country to be strong in every respect, not just military, but to have a strong economic system, healthcare etc.
Great nations do great things. I believe that this era of human history is going to be known to future eras as the age of space exploration. This is the time when we will first set sail for other worlds. And I think the great art of this period is not going to be paintings of the modern artists, but photographs taken by the Hubble Space telescope. This is what people will view as the great art of the late 20-th and early 21-st centuries.
Ukraine should be a part of it. Ultimately, you know, there will be new cities on Mars. There will be new branches of human civilization. Nations who will put their stamp on it will be those who take part. If you want anyone on Mars to know who Taras Shevchenko was, you need to go there. If you want them to know who you were, you need to go there.
— When do you think a human will put a foot on Mars? Is Mars still relevant taking into account the war in Ukraine and everything that is going on Earth?
– If Elon Musk does not lose his way, then we can have people on Mars within 10 years from now. I think that SpaceX is capable of doing it. Elon Musk is an extremely capable person and his team is extremely capable, but he is a risk taker. He could skate off the edge of the ice. Or he might not.
No one has ever lost money by betting on Elon Musk. I have my disagreements with him. I communicate with him from time to time, back as recently as this past week. He responded to some things that I said in my Kyivpost article. But it must be said frankly, that his Starlink satellites are doing a great deal for you regardless of Elon’s opinions.
If, on the other hand, he skates off the edge of the ice, then it will take another 10 years. Elon Musk set an example, and he is being copied. There are quite a few companies that have gotten into the entrepreneurial space race right now. They are going to try to duplicate what he’s done and eventually they will succeed. But it will take them some time to get to where he is and that would set us back 10 years.
Let me put it this way. There will be people on Mars in your lifetime. Absolutely. I think there will be human bases on Mars in your lifetime. And you may see the first child born on Mars in your lifetime.
Does it matter? I’m American. And if you ask any American with few exceptions what happened in the year 1492, they will tell you that was the year when Columbus sailed. Of course, that’s correct. But that’s not the only thing that happened in the year 1492. England and France signed a peace deal. Few Americans have ever heard of that. In 1492 the Borgias took over the Papacy in Rome. Lorenzo de Medici died. Tsar Ivan in Moscow did something horrible. Things happened all over the world in 1492. But we don’t remember that. What we remember is the act that led to our creation. Five hundred years from now only historical scholars will know who Putin was. But people will remember who opened up the space frontier, because that is what they will consider important about our time. People might remember who John F.Kennedy was, because he started the space program. Perhaps, people will remember Elon Musk, if he succeeds.
— Robert, you know Elon Musk personally. What is going on with Elon? Recently he has said some strange things about the war in Ukraine. Who can possibly influence Elon?
— He has some bad friends. One of them is David Sacks, who is sympathetic to the Russian cause. I do not think that Musk himself is tied up financially or otherwise with Putin. I think that they have played on his vanity. Musk’s greatest strength is the same as his greatest weakness. He wants eternal glory for doing great things.
And this has led him to do some great things. This is why he created SpaceX. He did not start SpaceX for the money. He did SpaceX to be a person of decisive historical influence making humanity interplanetary. That's why he did Tesla. He believes that electric cars are the key to stopping global warming.
Some of Putin's allies have prevailed on Musk saying: you can be the person to stop nuclear war, because the Russians will go to the nuclear war rather than lose Crimea. And you are the person who can bring people to understand that Russians must not be allowed to try nuclear weapons and that Ukraine must accept peace with the Russians letting them take what they've taken. So you have three great accomplishments: you made humanity interplanetary, you stopped global warming and you stopped nuclear war. This is how they sold it to him.
He’s also misinformed by them with a line that there’s no way the Ukrainians can take back these territories, because there are Russian-speakers, and those people want to be a part of Russia. In other words, the idea that this is a linguistic war between the two tribes. One of them speaks Russian, another speaks Ukrainian, therefore there must be a boundary. That is untrue. The large majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians support the Ukrainian cause, support Kyiv. This is a political battle, not an ethno-linguistics tribal battle. But the Russian line is otherwise. People who haven’t been in Ukraine don’t understand that that is false.
I told Elon Musk that he should accept President Volodymyr Zelensky’s invitation to come to Ukraine and see for himself. But Elon Musk did not.
We can prove that there was no reason to be fighting over provinces, when by working together we can open planets. I still believe that is ultimately true
— Robert, where do your ancestors come from? Do you still maintain any connection to Europe?
— I had ancestors on my father's side from Odesa. And others on his side came from different parts of the Russian Empire through Poland. My Mother’s side came from Hungary.
Father’s side came first, so they were much more assimilated Americans. My Mother, some of her older brothers and sisters were born in Hungary and she was the youngest of seven. The first five were born in Hungary. So they've all passed away now. But I knew them. They were Hungarian jews. I had a cousin who actually survived in Auschwitz. Aside from her, all the other Hungarians were killed. So no, I have no living connections in Europe. But also I guess I pay more attention to this part of the world, then I might have, if I had no such ancestry. I’m a little bit more aware of the history of the place.
— Do you have friends in Ukraine that you constantly remain in touch with?
— I certainly have friends here. Sergii Danylenko is a friend of mine in Ukraine. As you may know, he published one of my books, “The Case for Space” in Ukrainian (“Zhaga Kosmosu”). I have people in the Mars society Ukraine. There is a businessman here I know – Yaroslav Azhnyuk. There are the Inscience people. I also have some friends in the American military, who have been in Ukraine to help.
— How did this war influence you personally, Robert?
— Tyrants love war, because it justifies tyranny. And the war is justified because of the general belief that there isn't enough for everyone. Some tyrants have been very explicit on this point. In “The Case for Space” I actually quote Hitler, who said that the idea of perpetual prosperity through science was a Jewish plot to undermine the people's belief in the necessity for war. It's not a Jewish plot, but it does undermine people's belief in the necessity of war. Hitler wanted people to believe in the necessity for war. His entire regime depended upon that as its ultimate justification. And that's also Putin's ultimate justification and the reason why Russians believe in “silnaya ruka” (strong arm), which is necessary to make Russia strong. I believe that this could be overcome through human expansion into space itself.
We can prove that there was no reason to be fighting over provinces, when by working together we can open planets. I still believe that is ultimately true. But I think there are some things that need to be taken care of first.
As I said in my article in Kyivpost, and I will say it again. In 1858 Abraham Lincoln gave one of his most famous speeches, where he said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I do not believe our union can long endure half slave and half free. It must become all one thing or all the other.”
The forces of freedom won that conflict. But the world today is the House divided. It is half slave and half free. I can not believe it can endure long divided. It must become all one or all the other. And I believe that this war will decide the vector of which way it will go. It won’t be the final battle. But it is the fork in the road. And that's why I’m here in Ukraine.
The team at GORDON extends their gratitude to the head of the Mars Society Ucraine Sergey Danilenko for the assistance provided in arranging and translating the interview with Robert Zubrin.