The New ‘Gold Rush In Space’
Russian immigrant Mikhail Kokorich talks about America’s edge in the new era of private exploration, and his own plans for a water-fueled space transport. The New ‘Gold Rush In Space’
When the Crew Dragon splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico last Sunday—completing the first manned space mission from American soil in nine years—Mikhail Kokorich was exultant. Which is striking, given that he’s Russian.
Mr. Kokorich, 44, is one such entrepreneur. In 2017 he founded Momentus, a California-based company that seeks to revolutionize transport in space by developing in-space transfer vehicles that use water as a propellant. These would “complement low-cost gigantic rockets, like Starship from SpaceX and New Glenn from Blue Origin,” he says. Craft built by Momentus would enable the outer-space equivalent of the connecting flight. A satellite would reach orbit by “ride-sharing on a big rocket,” then transfer to a Momentus vehicle for the next leg farther out.
The choice of water as a propellant, Mr. Kokorich says, would “not only enable extremely low-cost in-space vehicles—built in a ‘Mad Max’ steampunk style—but eventually allow the use of water mined from the moon and from asteroids.” Far-fetched? He points to “binding contracts already with NASA, Lockheed Martin, and the U.S. Air Force,” not to mention dozens of satellite operators and manufacturers. “Hell, Momentus even has a ride-share partnership agreement with SpaceX.”
Now a CEO in the vanguard of rocket science, Mr. Kokorich was born in a house with no indoor toilets and sporadic electricity in Aginskoye, Siberia, population around 10,000. His mother was 19 when she bore him, and he was raised by her parents, both schoolteachers with more education than almost anyone else in town. “I often studied by the light of a kerosene lamp when I was young,” he tells me by Zoom from his house in Los Altos Hills, Calif., where he’s lived since he left Russia in 2014 as part of what he calls “the Putin exodus.”
He pored over more than science textbooks. “I read many American writers,” he says. “Jack London, Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway. These books helped me understand the importance of human freedoms and the spirit of pioneers.”
Thus he speaks of the Crew Dragon splashdown with a historical sweep. “In terms of managerial effectiveness,” he says, “using private business for space is like Queen Elizabeth I’s hiring of Francis Drake in the 16th century. These are buccaneers in space.” Drake created a multigun ship, “which was the greatest achievement of science and technology of that time.” He leaps ahead to the 17th century: “With the help of the East India Co., the British Empire was built in the East. This laid the economic foundation for victory over Napoleonic France and the Pax Britannica in the 19th century.” Mr. Kokorich says private companies like SpaceX—and, yes, his own—“will be the main driver of centuries of Pax Americana in space.”
America is regenerating its space ambitions as Russia falls ever lower in the space-tech pecking order. “The U.S. is definitely No. 1, then the European Union, then China,” Mr. Kokorich says. “Next, I think India is now comparable with Russia, and maybe even more advanced than Russia in a wider sense.” He attributes “the withering of Russia’s historic might in space” to its being strapped for cash, saddled with a Soviet-era approach that leans too heavily on the state, hampered by international sanctions and export restrictions, and debilitated by a brain drain—of which he is an example: “I am,” he says, “the typical representative of the Putin exodus.”
He says there’s been a tectonic shift in space exploration, from the Cold War superpower rivalry to a “gold rush in space,” driven by private enterprise. Entry barriers are lower because satellites are connected to rockets in an increasingly standardized way, and the cost of hardware has dropped like a meteor. “Ten years ago,” he says, “it cost $100,000 to launch one kilo into space. Five years ago, with cheap post-Soviet Russian rockets, the price fell to $20,000 to $30,000. Today, it’s $5,000.” He says it will drop another order of magnitude, to $500, once Starship—SpaceX’s super heavy, fully reusable rocket—is operational.
Mr. Kokorich believes the extraterrestrial gold rush favors the U.S. “The development of a new generation of reusable methane-fueled rocket engines,” he says, “definitively ended the U.S. dependence on Russian rockets that began when the Soviet Union collapsed.” The choice of the Lunar Gateway as “the next human-habitation platform in space, instead of a space station in Earth’s low orbit, carries with it financial and technical requirements that will effectively make the U.S. the controlling, if not the sole, platform operator.”
He also cites President Trump’s executive order of April 6 on the recovery and use of space resources, which he calls a “great clarifier, reinforcing the view that Americans should have the right to engage in the commercial exploration and recovery of resources in outer space, rather than treating space as some sort of global commons.” In short, Mr. Kokorich says, the U.S. will, “for the foreseeable future, use its market power to set the agenda of international cooperation.”
Numerous major U.S. corporations are already leading players in space. The big tech companies are developing satellite constellations to connect the estimated half of the global population that’s not yet online. “Amazon and the aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin,” he says, “are working on Project Kuiper to enhance global broadband connectivity. With Google’s backing, SpaceX is constructing a satellite constellation of its own. And true to form, Apple is pursuing a space project in secret.” Even Facebook has confirmed a satellite program in the works. All this, he says, is proof of “transnational cooperation driven by an entrepreneurial initiative that serves all mankind,” and of the benefits “afforded by American oversight.”
Mr. Kokorich is happy to see the U.S. leave his native land behind in the 21st century’s space race. In 2014 he moved to the U.S. under an O-1 visa, granted to aliens “with extraordinary ability or achievement.” In 2018, after he and his companies endured years of threats from Moscow, he applied for political asylum in the U.S. The last straw was his detention and four-hour interrogation that year at Moscow’s international airport. He hasn’t returned to Russia since, fearing imprisonment.
Dimitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s state-run space corporation, Roscosmos, suggested recently on Twitter that Mr. Kokorich’s work in the U.S. space industry was akin to that of a Nazi collaborator. The tweet was later deleted. It said that Mr. Kokorich “quickly changed his views after moving to the United States. As they say, nothing personal, only business. The ‘Free World,’ apparently, opened his eyes to many things. #Vlasovites.” The hashtag refers to a Soviet general who defected to Germany, commanded a pro-Nazi force that styled itself the Russian Liberation Army, and was hanged for treason after the war.
Mr. Kokorich says he’s had a political conscience for almost as long as he’s been an entrepreneur. He started his first company in 1995, at 19, “providing explosives and chemical services to Siberian mining companies.” In four years, “we became the largest supplier of explosives in Siberia.” He then returned to finish his studies at Novosibirsk State University, “the best foundry for physicists in Russia.” Mr. Kokorich, not always self-effacing, says he “quickly became one of the most prominent students.”
He came of age in the 1990s, a member of “probably the only generation in the history of Russia that had the opportunity to grow up exposed to political freedom, democracy, a free press, and respect for human rights.” After Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Mr. Kokorich grew alarmed by the curtailments of freedoms. He threw in his lot with Open Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s opposition group, “running several programs for it in Siberia.”
In 2005, Mr. Kokorich started a new company, ChudoDom (or Wonder House), which he describes as “a kind of Russian Bed, Bath & Beyond.” It was the largest home-merchandise retail chain in Eastern Russia and, after 2009, in the whole country.
In 2011, at 35, Mr. Kokorich had what he calls his “midlife crisis” and resolved to “do what I truly love—physics and engineering.” He co-founded Dauria Aerospace, Russia’s first private aerospace company. Flush with cash from selling the retail chain, he gave generously to RPR-Parnas, a liberal opposition party. He also contributed “a substantial amount of money to the organizing committee” for rallies and protests against Mr. Putin in Bolotnaya Square, in central Moscow. These protests, which took place in 2011-12, were “the last time when there was real hope about any kind of democracy, or at least a glimmer of it,” Mr. Kokorich says.
In 2014, an aerospace competitor informed the authorities that Mr. Kokorich had bankrolled the Bolotnaya protesters. That’s when he decided to move to California with his wife and children. This move had consequences that were typical of Putin’s Russia: His company was charged with various allegations of financial impropriety, and eventually shut down.
Yet Mr. Kokorich hasn’t withdrawn from the Russian political fray. Angered that “Putin appropriated the right to govern Russia as a czar,” Mr. Kokorich serves as California coordinator for the Free Russia Foundation, a “nonpartisan NGO that seeks to tell American lawmakers the truth about Russia, and help support an American ‘Russia policy’ that promotes freedom and democracy.”
It surely didn’t help Mr. Kokorich’s standing with the Putin regime that he also favors secession for his home region. He is part Buryat, the northernmost of the Mongol peoples, whose land China ceded to Russia in the late 17th century.
“An independent Siberia,” he says, “has a greater chance of becoming a democratic and liberal state than Russia.” Perhaps, but the odds for extracting water from asteroids seem better than either.