With America’s Shuttle Now Grounded, Russia Looks To Edge Ahead In Global Space Race

The end of the U.S. space shuttle program could be just what the doctor ordered for NASA’s old rival, the Russian Federal Space Agency, whose Soyuz rockets are now the only show in town when it comes to sending humans into the great beyond.

Near Russia's Baikonur cosmodromel, children examine an image of space pioneer Yuri Gargarin
Near Russia's Baikonur cosmodromel, children examine an image of space pioneer Yuri Gargarin
Benjamin Quenelle

BAIKONUR -- At the old Baikonur cosmodrome, the site of so many glorious moments for the Soviet space program, a Russian engineer proudly points to the Soyuz rocket just about to leave the ground. This will be a world record 1,774th launch for the brand of Russian-made rockets. It is the 23rd time the legendary engine wears the Arianespace logo.

Onboard the vessel are a number of communication satellites owned by the U.S. company Globalstar. "The United States needs us now, just like Europe does," the engineer insists. It is, of course, a reference to the recent "retirement" of America's space shuttle program. The final space shuttle voyage is set to conclude this week, meaning that for now, Russia's Soyuz rocket is the only machine available to transport humans to the International Space Station (ISS).

The commercial space transportation company operating many of those launches, Arianespace, just celebrated the 15th anniversary of its partnership with the European-Russian company Starsem. In the future, Arianespace plans to launch its Soyuz rockets not from Baikonur – located in the middle of the steppe in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan – but from a new facility in Guyana. The first Guyana launch will take place on Oct. 20, two years behind schedule.

"Increasing the number of flights transporting American astronauts may be a serious issue for Arianespace," says one of the company's French employees. "The risk is that there could be tensions over who and what comes first. The Russians can produce nearly as many Suyoz rockets as they want. But will there be enough technical staff to cover all the flights both from Baikonur and Guyana? The Russians will give priority to government flights, then to the Space Station missions, and finally to us."

Shooting for the stars

The Soyuz got its start a half-century ago, propelling famed Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin on his landmark voyage into outer space. Later Soyuz rockers launched countless European satellites. Now, the future of the formidable and reliable rocket – the workhorse of the space transportation world – is in the hands of Vladimir Popovkin, the new general director of the Russian Federal Space Agency.

In Baikonur, from which the Russian Proton rocket is also launched, Popovkin inspires fear. "The Russians talk about him all the time, and about his wish to fire half of the employees. They are terrified," says a French worker in Baikonur.

Popovkin was appointed to revitalize an industry that recently suffered severe blows. Most notable has been the failure of Russia to properly maintain its GLONASS global positioning system. GLONASS was designed to compete with the American GPS system and with Europe's planned Galileo program.

The new Russian Space chief is hoping to significantly increase Russia's market share in the international trade of space equipment. For now, Russia takes part in 40% of the world's space launches and produces roughly 20% of all space ships. In addition, Popovkin plans to build a new cosmodrome in far eastern Russia. The new space station will replace the venerable Baikonur facility, the world's first and still largest launch facility.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Vivaiquique

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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