( Moscow Defence Brief )
The failed launch of the Proton-M space rocket carrying three GLONASS satellites on July 2 was broadcast live on Russian television. That major setback drew the Russian government’s attention once again to the problems facing the national space industry. The new leadership of the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, clearly has its work cut out. The previous head of the agency, Vladimir Popovkin, was appointed in June 2011. He had obviously failed to achieve any notable improvement in the state of the industry in the intervening two years – which ultimately cost him his job. But many of the problems currently facing Roskosmos are part of a global trend; other space-faring nations are struggling with them as well.
Poor quality and elderly engineers
The latest incident with the Proton carrier was a direct result of the main problem that now plagues the Russian high-tech sector: low quality standards and inadequate quality controls. The Russian space industry continues to use obsolete technology that no longer meets modern requirements. The Russian leadership is well aware of that problem. Speaking on April 12, 2013 in Blagoveshchensk at a meeting to discuss the future of the industry, President Vladimir Putin had this to say on the matter: “A large part of the equipment used in the rocket and space sector is obsolete; more than 80 per cent of the electronic components used by that industry are imported”.
It was precisely due to poor quality control that the Proton crashed shortly after take-off on July 2. Speaking on July 18, the head of the government commission investigating the incident, deputy Roskosmos chief Aleksandr Lopatin, said that “engineers at the Khrunichev Center (the maker of the Proton) improperly installed the yawing plane sensors”. The sensors had passed all quality controls and were cleared for installation on the rocket - but some of them were installed upside down.
The conclusion reached by the commission was fairly predictable. The Proton-M has been in use since April 2001. Had there been any major problems with the rocket’s design, they would have already come to light. The rocket has been in production for 12 years, so all teething problems should have already been ironed out. But the Proton-M has a poor reliability record; of its 74 launches to date, only 66 have been successful. On three occasions the rocket itself failed (on September 5, 2007, December 5, 2010, and July 2, 2013). On five occasions the payload did not reach the target orbit because of the failure of the Briz-M booster (on February 28, 2006; March 14, 2008; August 17, 2011; August 6, 2012; and December 8, 2012). Only 89.2 per cent of the Proton-M launches have been successful. Most of the failed launches were not caused by any problems with the rocket’s design. They were caused by problems with the manufacture and assembly of individual components which were not detected during the subsequent tests and quality control procedures.
Incidentally, the Roskosmos chief who preceded Popovkin, Anatoliy Perminov, also lost his job because of a failed Proton launch; the incident happened on December 5, 2010, also with the loss of three GLONASS satellites. The government commission investigating the failed launch reached similar conclusions, blaming inadequate pre-launch testing of the rocket. Mr Perminov’s head rolled on April 2011; two months later he was replaced by Vladimir Popovkin.
But Popovkin, who had repeatedly exhorted space industry companies to improve manufacturing standards and quality controls, also failed to turn the situation around. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin suggested some fairly radical measures on July 18. He reacted to the conclusions of the investigation commission with his usual extravagance by posting the following message on Twitter: “Those suspected of outrageous violations of Proton-M assembly procedures will be tested on a lie detector. The Russian government expects a report from Roskosmos.”
The problem with poor quality standards and inadequate quality controls stem from an acute shortage of skilled engineers and technicians in the Russian space industry. The smaller subcontractors have been especially hard-hit. The personnel training system inherited from the former Soviet Union has been severely degraded. Technology universities and colleges are not very popular among school graduates. Relatively low wages offered by the space industry, especially in the 1990s and 2000s, have led to major problems with staff retention. The average age of the 67,000 employees working in the industry is 43 years. That indicator does not look bad, but there are two big spikes and a deep trough in the age distribution curve: 40 per cent of the employees are over 60, and 35 per cent are under 35 years old. The 35 to 45 age group, which has a good combination of productivity, skill, and experience, is severely underrepresented. Also, compared to the situation back in Soviet times, the number of university-educated specialists working in the industry has halved; the number of employees holding PhD degrees has fallen by two-thirds.
“The space industry must make a greater effort to attract new scientists and engineers, especially young talent,” President Putin said at the meeting in Blagoveshchensk on April 12. “To that end it should put in place proper conditions for professional growth, offer attractive compensation and benefits, and strengthen the system of research grants.”
Better financing and the space dissidents
To offer decent wages and research grants, the Russian space industry must first address another problem: finances. Government spending on the space industry is no longer as paltry as it used to be; in fact, it has rocketed by a factor of 17 over the past 10 years, from 10bn roubles in 2003 to 170.7bn roubles (5.16bn dollars) in 2013. Even adjusted for inflation, that is an astounding growth. In 2015 the figure should reach 199.2bn roubles, according to the government’s plans. “In the 2013-2020 period, about 1.6 trillion roubles will be spent on Russian space programs,” President Putin has said.
Only 10 years ago Russia was spending less on these programs than Canada, India, or Israel. Now it has the third-largest space budget in the world. The United States remains the undisputed leader in this area with the 17.86bn-dollar NASA budget for 2013. The EU is a distant second; at 4.28bn euros (5.54bn dollars), the European Space Agency (ESA) budget is less than a third of the U.S. figure. Russia, however, has almost caught up with the EU. It is worth noting, however, that the comparison does not take into account spending on the national space programs by individual European countries. Besides, no accurate information is available about Chinese spending, which could well be ahead of the Russian or even ESA figure.
Rapid growth in Russian spending on space has not been focused on any particular program (as was the case with NASA, which focused the bulk of its resources on sending its astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s). In fact, Russian financing of space programs has merely caught up with the old Soviet figures. The government has defined its objective as maintaining Russia’s status as a leading space-faring nation in the period to 2020, and strengthening that status in the period to 2030.
There was never any point expecting quick returns on the massive investment in the space industry. Space programs normally take at least five years to implement. In Russia, where the space design bureaus have lost most of their specialists over the past 20 years, that time frame may be even longer. That is why a rapid rise in government spending cannot lead to an overnight increase in the number of orbiting Russian satellites, the reliability of Russian space launchers, etc.
In fact, the Russian leadership had never expected any such miracle from Roskosmos. The agency was merely expected to start spending its money more wisely, and to restructure the space industry in order to make it more effective. But Vladimir Popovkin had obviously failed to deliver on those expectations.
The distribution of funding between the various space programs still has some obvious disproportions. “Up until recently manned space programs were taking up 40 to 58 per cent of the Roskosmos budget, starving other programs of funds, “ Vladimir Putin said on April 12. “As a result, we have fallen behind the world leaders in many areas, such as Earth imaging, personal satellite communication systems, search and rescue, etc. We are also lagging behind the leading space-faring nations in technologies required for deep-space exploration. Naturally, we must do all we can to preserve our achievements in manned space flight – but we must catch up with the leaders in other areas as well.”
Apart from manned programs (which take up “more than 40 per cent of the Roskosmos budget”, i.e. at least 70bn roubles), another major spending item is the GLONASS satellite navigation system (12.6 per cent, 21.56bn roubles). Another 12.2 per cent (20.8bn) of the budget is spent on the existing Plesetsk and Baikonur space launch centers, and on the construction of the new Vostochny center in Amur Region. According to Vladimir Popovkin, 38 per cent of the budget is being spent on the development and manufacture of space launchers (he probably included spending on new launch pads in that figure). “Only nine per cent of the budget is left for the development and manufacture of all the other unmanned spacecraft,” Popovkin complained at the meeting in Blagoveshchensk. “But it is not possible to develop them with that kind of money. That is why we have had to revise our priorities.”
That revision of priorities has given rise to the “space industry dissidents”. The group consists primarily of the space industry captains whose companies stand to lose from the reprioritization of government spending on space programs. A case in point was the conflict between Popovkin and Yuriy Urlichich, CEO of the Russian Space Systems company (RKS) and chief designer of the GLONASS program. In his war with Roskosmos, Urlichich had even resorted to nothing short of a smear campaign against Popovkin. In March 2012 Ivan Golub, deputy RKS chief, posted an open letter on the Internet, in which he called on Popovkin to step down. In response, Roskosmos initiated an anti-corruption probe against RKS, which resulted in Urlichich losing his job first as the GLONASS chief designer, and then in December 2012 as the RKS chief. The Interior Ministry then launched a criminal investigation against senior RKS managers, who were suspected of embezzling 6.5bn roubles of government money allocated for the GLONASS program.
These incidents notwithstanding, it is the Energia corporation, the main contractor in the Russian manned spaceflight program, that has always been the main opponent of Roskosmos ever since the agency was set up in February 1992. The war between Energia and Roskosmos began when the latter was led by Yuriy Koptev (1992-2004), and the former by Yuriy Semenov (1989-2005). It continued under Anatoliy Perminov, who led Roskosmos in 2004-2011; his main opponent was Nikolay Sevastyanov, the Energia chief in 2005-2007. The arrival of Popovkin at Roskosmos has not put an end to that war; his bitter rival at Energia is Vitaly Lopota, who has led the company since 2007.
The “40-58 per cent” of the Russian space budget that is being spent on manned programs goes straight to Energia. Obviously, the company does not want to lose any of that money, and keeps coming up with new proposals that actually require even more spending. In 2000 Energia proposed the development of a new reusable spaceship called Kliper; it has not given up on that proposal ever since. Roskosmos was dragged into that project against its own will - but eventually it managed to persuade the government that the list of requirements for the new spaceship should be changed. In 2009 the goal of the project was modified; it now aims to develop a more versatile New Generation Manned Space Transport (NGMST). In 2006 Energia also developed a concept of the Russian manned space program for the 2006-2030 period. The document outlined a phased program of establishing an industrial-scale space transport system; exploration of the near-Earth space and the Moon; and flights to Mars. Energia also argued that the Russian segment of the International Space Station should not be de-orbited along with the rest of the station in 2020. The proposal was to undock the Russian segment from the ISS and turn it into an independent Russian space station.
In April 2013 Vitaliy Lopota announced a somewhat different set of proposals for the Russian manned space program. The key proposal is that once the ISS has been de-orbited, it should be replaced by an international space platform positioned at the Lagrange Point (an equilibrium point between the Earth and the Moon where spacecraft can remain indefinitely in a stationary position). In the longer time frame the program includes international manned missions to asteroids, the Moon, the Mars orbit, and the Mars surface. According to the head of Energia, such a program could serve as an engine of technological progress for the entire Russian machine-building industry, just as the Energia-Buran program did in the 1980s. Lopota also called on the Russian government to initiate the development of an extremely powerful new space launcher that could handle payloads of up to 70 tonnes. Energia has already developed its proposals regarding the new rocket. “Without such a launcher, Russia will fall behind its rivals irretrievably,” Lopota said.
Leaving aside the question of space programs being an engine of progress, let us just mention than 56 years on since the coming of the space age, satellite telecommunication systems have become a profitable business. Earth imaging and satellite navigation are starting to turn a profit as well. Piloted space programs, however, are a bit like fundamental science: they do not generate immediate returns on investment. For Russia, the only exception to that rule is ferrying foreign astronauts to the ISS. But this line of business is not enough to sustain even Energia itself, let alone the entire Russian space industry. It has been merely a small added bonus on top of government financing of the industry. In the period between 1994 and 2017 Russia will have been paid a total of 3.21bn dollars for taking 55 foreign astronauts to the Mir space station and the ISS under contracts with NASA.
Also, in the period between 2000 and 2009 eight professional cosmonauts and eight space tourists visited the ISS; Russia was paid 20-22m dollars for each of these 16 visitors, i.e. a total of 330m dollars.
As a result, manned space flights earned Russia 3.54bn dollars over 22 years. That is about two-thirds of what it spends on its space program every year these days.
Applied goals and the new-old rockets
The government has given the go-ahead to the NGMST project, but the Federal Space Program does not contain any clear targets for that project. As a result, Roskosmos keeps dragging its heels on the manned space transport in an effort to reprioritize its resources towards more pragmatic projects. Vladimir Popovkin has highlighted space telecommunications as one of those projects. “One objective is to provide satellite communication coverage for the Arctic,” Popovkin said in his report to the Russian president in Blagoveshchensk on April 12. “This project is very problematic from the economic point of view, because at this stage it is very difficult for us to make it commercially viable. Another objective is to increase our telecommunications and TV broadcasting capability on the geostationary orbit. We need to increase the number of available transponders sharply to 2,000; that requires a fleet of 44 satellites. The plan is to finance half of them from extra-budgetary sources.”
Earth imaging is another important priority for Roskosmos. Only recently Russia had a single spacecraft available for these purposes, the Resurs DK. It covered only 10 per cent of the Russian customers’ requirement for satellite imagery; the remaining 90 were provided by foreign suppliers. In June 2013, however, Russia launched two Earth imaging satellites. Roskosmos hopes to increase its fleet of such satellites to 16 by 2015. Domestic providers will then control 60 per cent of the Russian market for satellite imagery, and 90 per cent by 2020.
Roskosmos has been fairly pragmatic about fulfilling one of its paramount objectives, i.e. giving Russia guaranteed access to space. The agency funds the maintenance of the ground infrastructure at the Plesetsk and Baikonur space launch centers, which are currently being used for the launches of the light Rokot carriers, the medium Soyuz-2, the medium-heavy Zenit, and the heavy Proton-M rockets. Despite their outward similarity to the rockets used in previous decades, these are all fairly new, economical and effective space carriers. Their engines, control systems and other hardware have undergone a whole series of upgrades since the first launches.
There is a lot of global demand for cheap access to space. Obviously, it is cheaper to use existing rockets and launch sites rather than run the risk and expense of developing new ones. All four types of Russian rockets used for the launches of Russian spacecraft also remain very popular with foreign customers. For example, the commercial launches of the Proton carrier (there have been 81 since 1996) have earned Russia about 5.7bn dollars. Europe has taken the unprecedented step of building a new launch pad for the latest version of the Soyuz-2 rocket at its space center in the French Guiana. Five commercial launches have been performed from that launch pad so far.
In addition to continuous upgrades of its existing rockets, Roskosmos is financing the development of the new Angara family. The agency had essentially inherited the Angara program from the MoD, which announced a competition for the development of a heavy rocket back in 1992. In 1994 the Khrunichev Space Center was announced the winner. But in 1997, when the Military Space Force was abolished as a separate armed service, the MoD said it would no longer provide all the financing required for the Angara program to come to fruition. The ministry continued to pay only for individual space launches, and co-financed the construction of the new launch facilities. The Angara program, however, had already reached a fairly advanced stage. That is why the civilian Russian space agency, Roskosmos, agreed to assume the financial burden of further R&D. The program has been taking up a significant portion of its resources. Spending on the Angara in 2006-2015 is expected to reach 3.288bn roubles (about 100m dollars, at the current exchange rate), including 2.68bn (81.5 per cent) from government financing, and 608m contributed by the contractors in their capacity as investors.
The Angara design was developed in the mid-1990, when money was especially tight. That is why the designers tried to make the best possible use of the already available technologies. The RD-191 engine of the rocket’s first stage is based on the RD-170 engine used in the Energia rocket. The second-stage RD-0124 engine was borrowed from the Soyuz-2. In order to increase the model range of the available space launchers with various payload capabilities amid the continued budgetary constraints, it was decided to develop two types of universal rocket modules. These can be assembled into the required type of space launcher, from light to heavy. Such an approach, however, involved a trade-off: the resulting rockets don’t offer the best possible performance compared with other models.
Almost 20 years on since the program kicked off, the Angara is due to begin flight tests in 2014. The Khrunichev Space Center’s competitors (including Energia, Progress, and others) keep calling for the project to be killed off in favor of a better design. Roskosmos ignores all these calls; starting an alternative program at such a late stage would mean losing another decade and letting billions of roubles go to waste. The first few Angara launches will be relatively expensive, but the costs will inevitably come down. “The Angara is now a bespoke product,” explains Aleksandr Fadeev, chief designer of the Ground Infrastructure Operation Center (TsENKI). “Once the rocket enters mass production, like the Protons have, with 12 rockets made every year, the unit price will be much lower.”
Now that more government funding has been made available, Roskosmos is thinking about developing a new super-heavy class of rockets capable of putting up to 50 tonnes of payload into orbit. In fact, one of the very few real uses such a rocket can be put to is manned missions to the Moon or Mars. Also, the rocket will only be needed if Russia were to pursue such manned missions on its own. If Roskosmos were to cooperate with NASA, the Americans would almost certainly prefer to use their own SLS rocket.
Another use for a new super-heavy Russian rocket would be as part of the nuclear-powered transport and energy module, a joint project led by Roskosmos and the nuclear engineering giant Rosatom. “We have managed to preserve the expertise [in the area of nuclear space projects] accumulated back in Soviet times,” Vladimir Popovkin says. “According to a joint estimate by Roskosmos and Rosatom, we are still 7-10 years ahead of the other world leaders in this area.” A nuclear-powered transport module could be used as a space tug boat to put satellites into their designated orbits, haul them to orbital platforms for service and maintenance, and accelerate robotic and manned spacecraft, putting them onto interplanetary trajectories.
Another expensive project now being implemented by Roskosmos is the new Vostochny space launch center being built in Amur Region. Vostochny is seen as an alternative to Baikonur, and partly to Plesetsk as well. The choice of the location in the Russian Far East was largely dictated by the overall national strategy of stimulating the development of Russia’s eastern provinces. The government in Moscow approved the location even though it knew perfectly well that it would make the construction and operation of the new space center more expensive. Last March the head of the Dalspetsstroy department of the Special Construction Projects Agency, Yuri Khrizman, unveiled some information about the ongoing project. “A total of about 164bn roubles will be spent on building the Vostochnyy space center in Amur Region by 2016. The main problem we are currently facing is financial, i.e. paying the contractor. It is no secret that Roskosmos representatives object to the prices being charged in the region.” Another problem, Khrizman said, is that the Far Eastern suppliers have the capability to provide less than 30 per cent of the materials required for the massive construction project. The costs of bringing these materials to the construction site are also very high. The contractors have to source more than 70 per cent of the materials they require from western Russian provinces, because the local producers either do not exist, or cannot maintain the required quality standards. “On the whole, I would rate the progress of the new space center project as a solid B,” Khrizman said. “Fifteen years ago I would even have said it’s a B+”. The first launch from the Vostochnyy space center is scheduled for 2015; the rocket to be launched is a Soyuz-2. The launch pad for the new Angara rockets should be completed by 2018.
Agency, state-owned corporation, ministry
Yet another major task Roskosmos must accomplish is restructuring the Russian space industry in order to consolidate its resources and make it more governable. The existence of the “space industry dissidents” owes much to the administrative and managerial weakness of Roskosmos itself. The agency currently lacks the powers to see many of its pragmatic, albeit unpopular decisions implemented.
This issue has been raised on several occasions ever since Roskosmos was established. Its previous chiefs, Yuri Koptev and Anatoliy Perminov, have clearly lacked the bureaucratic clout to change the situation. As a result, the Russian space industry remains a collection of hundreds of small and self-sufficient companies. In the absence of adequate financing from the government in the 1990s and 2000s, these companies had often been locked in bitter competition, encroaching on each other’s turf, and even using price dumping in an effort to bring their rivals low. Consolidation of all these companies under central control was supposed to put an end to unproductive rivalry. Besides, the complete or partial failures of some of the latest Russian space programs (Fobos-Grunt, KazSat, Elektro, Meteor, Briz-M, Araks-N, Persona, Meridian, etc) has demonstrated that very few of the Russian space industry contractors have the necessary engineering expertise and capability to take on such complex tasks and ensue the required standards or reliability. Consolidation of the smaller companies would address the shortage of skilled personnel by having each design bureau work on its own part of a single big project.
Discussions of the possible ways of reorganizing the Russian space industry have been ongoing for two decades. In the 1990s Yuri Koptev wanted Roskosmos to become the core of a resurrected Ministry of General Machine-Building, which was in charge of all space industry assets in the former Soviet Union. In late 2006 his successor Anatoliy Perminov announced plans for consolidating the industry under three or four large holding companies by 2015. In the interim, he wanted the design bureaus, manufacturing plants and some of the subcontractors to be consolidated into 12-15 conglomerates, each working on its own space project. Speaking in August 2009, the then prime minister Vladimir Putin outlined the state of the Russian space industry at the time. He said that only four consolidated groups were actually up and running. These included the Khrunichev Space Center (the maker of the Proton, Rokot and Angara rockets); the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation (manned spaceflight programs); Progress (Soyuz rockets and Earth imaging satellites); and the Pilyugin Automation and Instruments Research and Production Center (control systems for rockets, booster blocks, and various spacecraft). Shortly afterwards the government set up the fifth such consolidated group called Information Satellite Systems, with the Krasnoyarsk Applied Mechanics Research and Production Company at its core. The group makes communication, navigation, and mapping satellites.
In 2011 Vladimir Popovkin proposed the idea of establishing two large space industry holding companies, with the Khrunichev Center and the Energia corporation at their core. But the other Russian space industry companies, backed by some government officials, blocked the proposal. Very similar problems arose when the government was setting up other consolidated defense industry groups, such as the Almaz-Antey Air Defense Concern, the Tactical Missiles Corporation, the United Aircraft Corporation, the United Engine Corporation, and the United Shipbuilding Corporation.
In an effort to put an end to rivalry and squabbling between the Russian space industry companies, in 2012 Roskosmos proposed another initiative to set up a new state-owned space industry corporation, modeled on the nuclear industry giant Rosatom, and with Roskosmos itself at its core. The agency wanted the proposed space corporation’s remit to include formulating government policy on space programs, signing state contracts, distributing budget financing between individual companies, and issuing operating licenses. The corporation would also take ownership of all state-owned shares in space industry companies. One major flaw of the proposal was that transforming Roskosmos into a state-owned corporation would leave the Russian government without an agency supervising space programs on behalf of the state. Implementing the proposal would also result in uncertainty over Russia’s participation in international space programs; the international agreements on such participation must be signed by a government agency, i.e. Roskosmos.
In August 2012 the Russian Cabinet set up an inter-agency working group led by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. The group was tasked with formulating a strategy for restructuring and consolidating the Russian space industry, and developing an improved system of administration and management for that industry. After considering the idea of establishing a consolidated state-owned corporation, the group rejected the proposal. Other options it had considered included the establishment of several independent holding companies, or consolidating all space industry assets under a united holding company called OAO Kosmoprom. Summing up the results of the group’s work, Rogozin announced the following conclusion: “The working group has concluded that at this stage we need to preserve and strengthen the role of the federal executive agency, i.e. Roskosmos. At the same time, we need a phased consolidation of the Russian space industry under large holding groups in the form of joint-stock companies fully owned by the Russian state.” In other words, the working group recommended that things should be left more or less as they were.
Last April, however, President Putin indicated that some changes might still be in the offing. The president asked the Cabinet to consider the possibility of creating a Space Industry Ministry in order to improve the industry’s administration and management mechanisms. “We have some ministries that do not actually have any physical assets to control,” Vladimir Putin said. “The role of some of these ministries is limited to issuing guidance and recommendations. Meanwhile, we have a space industry that is almost fully owned by the state, or at the very least, the government owns the controlling stake in these companies. So on the whole, I am not ruling out that establishing such a [space industry] ministry could make sense.”
Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST)