War Stories: Ukraine’s Space Professionals Share Their Experiences
Ukraine has a vibrant, up and coming space industry with rich heritage that has been thrown into doubt due to Russia’s invasion. In this feature, some of Ukraine’s most prominent space professionals share their personal accounts of the invasion, and how they see the future for the space industry as war rages in their country.
May 23, 2022
On February 24th, the world changed for Ukraine as Russia mounted an invasion which marked a new era in world geopolitics. In the initial stages of the invasion, cities like Kyiv, Odessa, and Kharkiv were targeted by Russian forces as the war that many feared became a reality. The war has a high humanitarian cost, and to date, 5.6 million refugees have fled Ukraine, and 7.7 million have moved within the country for safety, according to the UN Refugee Agency. In addition to the humanitarian toll, the war has disrupted industries including global food production, industrial materials, and space.
Ukraine has a vibrant, up and coming space industry with rich heritage that has been thrown into doubt due to Russia’s invasion. In this feature, some of Ukraine’s most prominent space professionals share their personal accounts about what happened, and how they see the future for the space industry as war rages in their country.
Talking to Via Satellite from her new home in the Netherlands after a long journey evacuating Ukraine, Nataliya Nakonechna tries to make sense of a whirlwind few weeks where she feared for her safety, and had to take the painful decision to leave her life in Kyiv behind.
Nakonechna, 41, is an advisory board member of the Association Kosmos, and is involved in attracting investment for Ukrainian space projects. Born in Dnipro, Ukraine, she first became part of the space industry in 2003 when still a student.
In February, Nakonechna says she understood that the most important things in life are those you can fit into just one backpack. Each time she returned home from the bomb shelter, she felt the value of all the things in her apartment decreasing. “The most important things I always had with me – my son, dog, cat, laptop, and set of documents. During my evacuation, I met a lot of good people, who were ready to help and protect.”
She talks about the complete “shock and pain” of war and the need to leave her home. War was literally on her doorstep. Nakonechna recalls, “For a few hours it seemed to me that if I even went to the bathroom, the rocket would hit my house. The second night around 4:20 a.m., a Russian rocket, flying above our house, hit another house across the road. The next building to that house was my garage. The danger and risk was all around, and it was growing every day. But still I didn’t want to leave Kyiv, hoping that it would end soon.”
Nakonechna then spent a week at a bomb shelter with her son, and dog, and was watching everything happening across the Ukraine, and especially close to Kyiv in Irpin and Bucha.
“I understood that we had to evacuate. We had one hour to take some of our stuff and then leave. In total it took us five and a half days to get from Kyiv to Łódź in Poland. That was the longest and the most dangerous trip in my life. Each day I was driving for 14 to 16 hours,” she says.
Yet she does not think it will take decades for the space industry to recover when this conflict ends, and that the Ukrainian space industry will recover much faster than the Russian space industry. She believes the wound will “heal quickly.”
“For Russia, it will be a deep wound. It will heal back in 20 to 30 years. But for Russia’s competitors it is a good chance now to get better and higher positions at the world space market,” she says. “For Ukraine, I would consider it will be mostly about development and growth, rather than recovery. We will be building our needs depending on global priorities. There is a high possibility that there will be developing space militarization and thus space security and defense is going to take the leading role.”
Nakonechna hopes Ukraine will reevaluate its space priorities to give more attention to security, Earth observation, small launch vehicles, satellite technologies, and communication. She says the country now has a good chance to get rid of the remains of the Soviet Union and build a new Ukrainian space industry that will also become the base for Ukraine’s security.
She says the disintegration of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine in regards to space accelerated in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, but it began as early as the mid-2000s.
“In 2005 to 2006 Russia was already working on import substitution. They were trying to cut dependence on our technologies,” she says. “That’s why separation in 2014 was not that painful for Russia, as it was for Ukraine, because our country was not ready for this, and the risks were not diversified. But still Russia was not able to substitute everything, for example, docking and control systems. The current situation is not that painful for the Ukrainian space industry as it was before in 2014. Space is already taking its proper position in the sectors of security, agriculture, etc.”
Olga Motsyk-Schaafsma, who was born in Kyiv and came to the Netherlands in 2006, is one of many space professionals who left Ukraine to build a life and career in the space industry. Now 38 years old, she is a Galileo System verification engineer for the European Space Agency at the European Space Research and Technology Centre via CGI. Motsyk-Schaafsma dreamt of working in the space industry from a very young age. As a child, she wanted to be an astronaut, then around age 14 she learned about the Cassini-Huygens research mission, and from then on her goal was to work on an interplanetary mission.
Many of her family including her parents, sister, all of her cousins, nieces and nephews are based in Ukraine. Some have fled to safety, while others have stayed behind to fight. Some are not able to or do not want to evacuate.
In the week prior to the invasion, Motsyk-Schaafsma said she was monitoring news outlets and social media, and she said her friends and family in Ukraine estimated the chance that Russia would invade at around 5 percent. “They didn’t seem worried, and neither was I. It came as a complete shock to everyone, and I am still in shock and disbelief at the situation,” she says.
Motsyk-Schaafsma believes Russia’s goal is not only to destroy military targets, but to create a humanitarian crisis and cripple the economy of Ukraine, and points to the fact that Russia is bombing infrastructure like water and electricity plants and railways, and will likely target manufacturing facilities, which she says makes it challenging to continue a ‘business as usual’ approach.
“I saw a statistic which said recently that overall 43 percent of SMEs are still operating in Ukraine at the moment, however, I am not sure on the numbers in the government/space sector. The Ukrainian government is doing all it can to increase that number by offering incentives like tax/inspection removal, and a host of other legislation to help Ukrainian businesses survive.”
She praises the work of SpaceX and Starlink, helping provide connectivity in Ukraine during the last couple of months. She believes we will only know how critical Starlink actually has been in Ukraine after the war is over. She adds, “What has been even more important, however, is Elon Musk’s public support of Ukraine. This not only works to give Ukrainian people a moral boost, but sends a message to his influence sphere from his followers to government leaders about the direction in which everyone should work. It emboldens people to take the right moral stance, which works to get Ukraine more humanitarian and military support, and slowly corrode any internal support Putin’s war may still have.”
Motsyk-Schaafsma would like to see all leaders in the space industry take a public stance supporting Ukraine and to work toward isolating Russia economically. “Each space leader should now think, ‘Do I still have projects with the Russian Federation, and if so, what can I do to end this cooperation as soon as possible?’” she says.
Lisa Kucher is a legal and business analyst at RespectUs, an export control compliance firm. With opportunities to do space law limited in Ukraine, she took advantage of European ties to study and ultimately work in Europe in the field of space law. Even though Kucher is based in Strasbourg, France, she was back in Western Ukraine visiting family members in the city of Rivne on Feb. 23 and 24.
She recalls a big feeling of confusion, not knowing how to react, and feeling caught in the eye of the storm. “You are creating horrible scenes of what could happen to you. Will I be under rubble? Will someone shoot me in my house? Even though they weren’t happening directly, you are thinking about them. You are becoming paranoid, because you don’t know what to wait for. When you go on the street, you can feel something is not right,” she says. “There is a feeling of emptiness and readiness to do something but you don’t know what you can do. At first you are confused and very scared, then angry, and only in some time you adapt, analyze the situation and start thinking about what you can effectively do.”
Kucher talks about mentally preparing for the worst as “you need to get used to death around you. The week I was there it was all about building this emotional resilience. The times are different. All the horrible things that are happening is because you are in a war,” she says. She is now back in France.
Looking at the overall space industry in Ukraine, Kucher says it is a pretty young country so the space industry is in the early stages. But over the last 10 to 20 years, Ukraine has seen a rise in space startups.
“We were starting to develop a private space industry. But now it is halted. A lot of my friends working in space startups just went to the fields. They became soldiers. Other companies are still trying to continue their work. Space is helping a lot. They are helping the military. Satellite data is really important,” she says.
Looking at the overall situation, Kucher believes Ukraine was taking a direct way to enter the EU, so she would expect in the next few years, there will be more partnerships with the EU countries. “The Ukrainian Space Agency was having talks with the Polish Space Agency. We would like to see more European and U.S. investment into the Ukrainian space sector. I see it in a positive perspective. I hope this will be the case. The vector will be pro-European,” she says.
Kucher sees cyber attacks already escalating. She adds, “Russia was and continues extensively attacking systems in the Ukrainian government, IT, energy, and financial institutions. It also includes jamming of GPS signals all around Ukraine. There are probably lots of cases of jamming that we don’t know, this data is missing as it directly relates to the military. As to jamming of satellites in orbit, Roscosmos has talked about the attacks on satellites could be considered an act of war. If no one would expect Russia would invade Ukraine, then you really can’t exclude anything else from happening, including jamming of the satellites in space.”
Yet Kucher remains optimistic for the future. She is perhaps one of the few Ukrainians well versed in the topics of space law. The goal will be to ultimately create a vibrant space community in Ukraine.
“Right now, it is very limited, but it would be a real joy to see more people join this community. Right now, we have to concentrate on how to make the war end. There is a lot of hope. There is a lot of work to do for the younger generations, as we can have beautiful, brilliant minds. We just need to nurture them in the right way. I will be happy to contribute to this in the future,” she says.
In terms of whether we will now see a cold war extending to space, Kucher feels it has been going this way in recent years. She points to a worrying tendency that countries are looking to do their own anti-satellite (ASAT) tests. “Russia shot down its own satellite in the beginning of November. The overall trend of ASAT testing is there and rises. More and more countries are interested in developing their military capabilities in space. It won’t be an exact copy of the Cold War, as there are more actors coming into this game.”
One of the most prominent figures in Ukraine’s space industry is Misha Rudominski, CEO of Promin Aerospace. Rudominski, 22, was born and raised in Kiev and is one of the new faces of the country’s space industry.
No one believed the invasion would happen, he says. Rudominski spent most of late February in Kyiv volunteering and helping, with life in Kyiv still resembling some kind of normality. However, Rudominski and his family relocated to Ternopil, a city in western Ukraine.
Rudominski has some strong comments about how the global space community can help Ukraine. While some Earth observation and defense enterprises may feel it is a risk to share information or resources with Ukraine because it is considered a high-risk country, he says, the key is to understand the mindset of people that work across space in the country.
“Ukrainians have a Western mindset,” he says. “We know the importance of intellectual property and data protection. I think what is important now will be important in the future for successful corporations to understand Ukraine when talking about people and sharing data.”
Rudominski believes overall that Ukraine is not a high-risk country and that people shouldn’t think that if they share data with people and companies in Ukraine, that it will be leaked to Russia. Rudominski says companies need to think of Ukraine as a trustworthy partner in the future, and that will be important for companies like Promin Aerospace and other Ukrainian organizations trying to partner with them in the future.
Rudominski says that Ukraine lost around 50 percent to 70 percent of its aerospace market in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, because it was mostly tailored toward Russia. Since 2014, Ukraine hasn’t done any business in the defense and aerospace industry with Russia. After 2014, there was a general understanding that Ukraine space companies could not do business with their Russian counterparts.
“I think this situation puts a big full stop in that story. It doesn't really change the direction that Ukraine was already going. It supports our previous strategy of going toward Europe, toward more advanced and modern international players in the aerospace market. U.S., Europe, Japan, and Korea and everybody apart from Russia and this war that Russia escalated,” he says.
Rudominski says that access to funding for space companies from Ukraine is a complicated question. However, he thinks international funds, venture capital and angel investors, are learning more about Ukraine.
“Learning about how the country does things, learning how it approaches problems, how even in the cases of war many people are continuing to do their job which is I think for somebody like Western Europe or North America would be… I don't think they even understand how it's possible. This could lead to a bright future for Ukraine’s space industry.” He adds, “I think what is going to happen when Ukraine ends this war is that the funding is going to be much more accessible for us and is going to help all those startups, private companies, even state enterprises to find a new way for them to grow much faster because people in Ukraine can build businesses and grow without money. That is something that not everybody can do. When we get access to good funding, that will allow those businesses to compete on the international market. We are already doing it, including Promin Aerospace.”
Rudominski says he believes in the brilliant minds in his country. “I believe the Ukrainian aerospace industry will experience a certain renaissance,” he says.
On the morning of Feb. 24, Volodymyr Usov recalls being woken by the sounds of explosions at 4 a.m. Usov, the co-founder of Kurs Orbital, fell back asleep thinking it was a bad dream, before waking up and realizing the world had changed. “I understood that the nightmare was real and the world had changed”.
Like others, Usov, 38, believes the war began back in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, Donbass, and Lugansk. He believes what changed after Feb. 24 was the intensity of the invasion and the number of innocent people dying every day. “I’m sure it wouldn’t happen if the world reacted properly to Putin’s invasion in 2014,” he says. “But finally, the world noticed the war in Ukraine in 2022. I believe this will help to end it faster with all the support we are receiving from the Western world, which now clearly understands the nature of this war and what Russia is actually doing.”
Ukraine’s space economy will see many changes in the future. Usov believes one of the key goals of a new national space program should be generating demand for new space technology developed by private companies who will both collaborate and compete with state space enterprises. He points to the fact that legislation allowing private space business in Ukraine was already approved by President Zelensky in 2020.
“This new ecosystem can be achieved by the corporate reform which was ready to be launched in 2020 but faced severe resistance from the old elites. Now it’s time to push it forward,” he says. “A national space program and corporate reform are two major steps to finally cut ties with Ukraine’s Soviet past and to shift the Ukrainian space industry to a new corporate model. Ukraine joined the Artemis Accords in 2020 and has been a reliable international partner since 1993. I believe the future of Ukrainian space is not in Soviet heritage but in creative and hardworking people who are still developing world-class technology with a fraction of the resources normally required elsewhere.”
Usov describes how the Ukrainian space industry is a vertically integrated structure managed by the Space Agency. There are around 20 state enterprises in Dnipro, Kyiv, and Kharkiv that are involved in a closed cycle of launch vehicles and spacecraft manufacturing. The efforts of Ukrainian state enterprises have resulted in development of nine types of space launch vehicles atop of which more than 1,100 spacecraft were orbited as a result of about 500 successful launches. Usov says Ukraine can be proud of its space transportation systems, many of which became world class examples like Zenit launch vehicles family, characterized by high reliability, fully automated pre-launch operations, and high injection accuracy.
However, the industry has suffered from a lack of funding. He says, “The industry has been underfunded for many years now and requires radical reforms. Several critical steps need to be done to build a modern space sector in Ukraine, one that leverages Soviet heritage and existing, powerful space enterprises currently managed by the state.”
Usov believes that after the end of war Ukrainian space will make a leap forward replacing Russia in many projects and building new international collaborations.
This is a vision shared by many. As the war rages on, we will wait to see what happens next not just to Ukraine, but also its space industry. There are many brilliant minds who want to contribute to the global space economy. These stories represent a fraction of the people working in space, and hopefully in the future, we will hear more about this space industry and what it can bring to the global space economy. VS