Someone is not very happy.
A long and strikingly critical article that reviews the state of the Russian space program was published in the state-aligned newspaper MK this week.
None of the findings in the 2,800-word article were particularly surprising. Western observers who track the Russian space industry realize the program is deeply troubled, and to a great extent running on the fumes of its past and very real glory. What is notable, however, is that a major Russian media outlet has published such a revelatory article for a domestic audience.
Increasingly, Russia's space program seeks to project its greatness in space through symbolic acts rather than technological achievements—such as the launch of a Russian movie star, sending a robot nicknamed Fedor to space, or making (entirely) hollow promises about a Moon landing in 2030. But now it has been called out on these acts in a publication closely aligned with the Russian government.
The Moscow-based daily newspaper MK, formerly known as Moscovsky Komsomolets, was, during the Soviet era, the propaganda organ of the Komsomol, or Young Communists League. This article was written by Dmitry Popov, who has worked at the publication since 1992. During his career Popov earned numerous official expressions of thanks, recognitions, and awards from the Russian government and recently received a commemorative dagger from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Russia tells its space reporters to stop reporting on the space program
Because the article was published in a state-sanctioned newspaper, Popov is exempt from the country's recently declared rules about independent media reporting on much of Russia's space activities.
Notably Popov's analysis is highly critical of Dmitry Rogozin, who leads the Roscosmos space corporation, which manages much of the country's spaceflight activities. So why is a state-sanctioned journalist criticizing the state's space leader in a state-aligned publication? That's a big question.
Rotting from within
The article, translated for Ars by Rob Mitchell, is titled "The Space Program Is Rotting from Within." It begins with the declaration that Russia's space program has a shortage of competent and highly qualified staff, obsolete facilities and technology, and "systemic leadership weakness." And that's just the opening paragraph.
Popov goes on to state that Russian space companies are delinquent on promised deliveries for hundreds of contracts. For example, the Khrunichev Center agreed to deliver 10 booster cores for the Angara A5 rocket five years ago. The first five cores were delivered only in March of this year, and the other five are not yet completed. From the article:
Why? Because Roscosmos is exercising, shall we say, not-so-strict control over execution of defense contracts by its daughter companies. In March 2020, Dmitriy Olegovich Rogozin approved the relevant procedural regulations to exercise control over execution of Defense Ministry contracts by subordinate organizations of the State Corporation. However an audit showed that his subordinates are in no hurry to comply with procedures. ... Where appropriate controls are insufficient, fraud and abuse are inevitable. As regards relations with the leaders of daughter companies (of Roscosmos), since 2019 over 60 criminal investigations have been initiated on the companies and their contracts, with total losses assessed at more than 5 Billion rubles ($67.7 million).
Popov said Roscosmos is struggling even to build its mainstay vehicles, the Soyuz rockets and Progress spacecraft. Consider a recent docking issue with the Progress vehicle, which carries supplies to the Russian segment of the International Space Station.
We launched the Progress MS-16 cargo spacecraft in mid-February of this year. However it was unable to dock automatically, and had to be docked under manual control due to damage to the Kurs-NA system (radar measuring system). It was damaged because the fairing delaminated during launch. It turned out that the epoxy used in its manufacture was not checked to see if it was within specifications. The contractor for the glue, CHEMEX Limited joint stock company, lacks the technological means to produce its own product, meaning they purchased the product from another vendor, and for the samples already used, documentation affirming its conforming with specifications and its origin were never submitted. That is, when and where the epoxy was purchased is unknown. Fine, as long as it wasn’t purchased at the local Sadovod DIY store (Russia’s Home Depot). But a further 15 payload fairings were built using the same "technology." Their acceptance has been halted. And then the most interesting part—similar damage to the KURS-NA system has been noted previously, on the launches of Progress ships MS-13 (Dec. 6, 2019), MS-14 (April 25, 2020), and MS-15 (Jun 23, 2020). But they flew, didn’t they? Why raise a panic now? It went before, it’ll do.
Popov further expressed concern about reliance on Germany to help fuel the Soyuz rocket and the Soyuz spacecraft that launches humans. The issue is that vernier thrusters on the Soyuz boosters and in the de-orbit engines of the Soyuz-MS spacecraft use a special grade of highly refined hydrogen peroxide. Production of this hydrogen peroxide in Russia, however, depends on deliveries of chemicals produced by a German company called Evonik Resource Efficiency GmbH. These deliveries are subject to limitation by international sanctions against the Russian Federation.
"That is, the West can stop Russian space launches with a single keystroke," Popov wrote.
The article also discusses the Vostochny Cosmodrome, a spaceport in eastern Russia that has been a priority for President Vladimir Putin. However this project, under Rogozin's stewardship, has been beset by construction delays and corruption, such as embezzlement.
Of the nearly 1,200 structures planned for construction at the spaceport, only about 200 have been completed, Popov wrote. Construction has yet to begin on more than 40 percent of them. Already, the planned launch of Angara A5 rockets from Vostochny has been delayed from 2021 to 2023, as criminal investigations continue.
How The NES Conquered A Skeptical America In 1985
Popov then turns to Russia's so-called Moon program, which requires development of the Oryol, or "Eagle," spacecraft to fly cosmonauts into deep space. This vehicle was intended to both replace the Soyuz for transporting cosmonauts to the International Space Station and to form part of the lunar program.
In 2009 Roscosmos ordered work to create a next-generation crewed spacecraft for flights to low-Earth orbit and to deep space, including to the Moon.
Meanwhile, building the crewed Oryol spacecraft is at the stage… of making mockups and test articles, conducting experimental tests on half-scale models. Just for comparison, Elon Musk’s reusable Crew Dragon which is already flying here and there in space, was also conceived in 2009.
Russia’s crewed Moon program, which will use the Oryol, for practical purposes is not yet developed. The ground-based infrastructure for conducting space launches from Vostochny is not complete, the mechanisms to complete it and the funds to finance its completion are not determined, which taken together puts the entire future development of crewed space exploration at risk.
But aside from that, everything is going swell with Russia's Moon program.
Popov also criticizes Rogozin for over-promising on Russian launch efficiency and under-delivering. For example, Roscosmos said there would be 44 space launches in 2019, and 25 were conducted. In 2020, 40 launches were planned and just 17 conducted. This year, Russia has conducted fewer than half of its planned 47 launches. Roscosmos, therefore, has decided to no longer publish its planned number of launches.
The overall portrait Popov paints of Roscosmos is that of a wasteful, increasingly decrepit enterprise where almost no money is being invested into the present or future. Instead, the focus seems to be providing high-paying jobs for a handful of technocrats, whose salaries are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Meanwhile, the average monthly wages for technical specialists who build the country's rockets and spacecraft range from $500 to $1,000 a month.
"As a result, hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of rubles fly away not into space, but fecklessly and pointlessly disappear down the drain," Popov writes. "All these beautiful PR presentations of art-decorated rockets and wild promises are still little more than cover for the rapid collapse of Russia’s space industry. If nothing changes, if there is no political will to introduce strict order using maximally radical methods, space will remain Russian only in our memories."