RIA Novosti commentator Alina Chernoivanova
The recent string of spaceflight accidents in Russia is the symptom of a deep crisis in the nation's aerospace industry. Experts say it's time to tone down the rhetoric about Russia being a "great space power." Russia must overcome possible new setbacks and work hard in order to return to the level of quality of 20 years ago.
Russia has lost six spacecraft in a matter of nine months. Last December, a Proton-M booster rocket failed to put three Glonass-M satellites into orbit. The launch of the Rokot booster rocket carrying a military geodesic satellite Geo-IK-2 ended in failure in February. These two accidents cost Anatoly Perminov his job. The long-serving official, who had been at the helm of the Russian Space Agency for seven straight years, left his job before the end of his contract and the completion of the industry overhaul he was supposed to carry out.
Soyuz carrier rocket set to launch from Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan
In April, Vladimir Popovkin moved into Perminov's office. His first months on the job were relatively calm, and Russia made nine successful launches. However, on August 18, the launching of Proton-M with a Briz-M upper stage ended in failure. The Express-AM4 communication satellite went off course. On August 24, a Soyuz-U booster malfunctioned, preventing the Progress M-12M cargo spacecraft from reaching orbit. Its debris landed in Gorny Altai, Russia.
The series of accidents raised questions about the state of the Russian aerospace industry. Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov said that lawmakers and the government will discuss the latest setbacks during the fall session.
"Duma deputies pay very close attention to the situation in the industry," Gryzlov said.
Risk always has been and always will be part of space exploration. However, there is a legitimate question: Are the latest failed launches a symptom of systemic problems, or is it just a disastrous set of circumstances that's to blame? Speaker Gryzlov believes that the problems need to be resolved in a professional and unemotional manner.
However, experts believe that causes of the problems in the space industry have been clear for some time now, and that the first step to address them has already been made with the appointment of a capable manager. What's left is to pull the Russian space industry out of its current crisis and give it a fresh start.
"The roots of the crisis extend back to the 1990s," says Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of National Defense magazine. "The government under Boris Yeltsin essentially made no systemic efforts to support the space industry, which is strategically important for Russia's national security."
Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Strategy and Technology Analysis, says that after the collapse of the Soviet Union "the space industry largely remained in the Soviet Union in the minds of the people."
He said that the aviation industry used to be run by the ministry of the aviation industry. When the ministry was dissolved, the enterprises were left to fend for themselves, but Russian aircraft, particularly military aircraft, was in demand among foreign buyers, and the industry "managed to stay afloat without the guiding role of the party." The same can't be said for the space industry. "The situation has changed, and they pretended like nothing has happened," explains Pukhov.
The restructuring of the space industry began under Perminov, and it hasn't yet been completed. "Koptev (Yury Koptev, first head of the Russian Federal Aviation and Space Agency - RIA Novosti) was a technician, whereas Perminov had a military background," says Pukhov. "Both were competent professionals, but their competence was limited to one aspect of the industry. They were good enough to go from door to door and ask for more funding. But when the money arrived, they realized that money can't fix everything."
"You can throw as much money at the problem as you want, but there are no specialists, no administrative discipline and work ethic. Instead, what we see is pride of epic proportions in Russia as a leading space power, Russia taking Americans for space rides and Russia owning the ISS...," says Ruslan Pukhov. The time has come to face facts.
Out with the old, but nothing new
Igor Lisov, editor of the industry magazine Cosmonautics News, believes that the root of the crisis in the industry is inability to create new things.
"In the grand scheme of things, we lost our ability to create anything new after Buran," says Lisov. "The Briz-M upper-stage rocket, which was part of the malfunction involving the Express satellite, was designed during the post-Soviet period and seems to work fine...but it malfunctions during every tenth launch. We need to find out if it's due to design errors or defective parts. However, often they don't even have the source data needed for analysis, and they accept easily fixable malfunctions as true causes."
Therefore, Mr. Lisov believes that it's important to support enterprises that still manage to innovate, despite the odds. "There's Zheleznogorsk, which fights its way through and manufactures non-airtight platforms for geostationary equipment and Glonass; and the Lavochkin R&D Company, which put fear mongers to shame by making the Navigator platform a reality and launching Spektr-R," says the expert. "We need to come up with new challenges and form new designer teams, once we realize that the old reputable firms are no longer fertile ground. The market will not accomplish this. This has to be done by the state."
However, so far we have failed even to preserve the Soviet legacy. The failure to launch the Soyuz booster is, in fact, unprecedented. No, this is not the first accident in the history of this rocket, but this rocket is among the best and most reliable. The Progress cargo spacecraft was lost for the first time in the over 30 years that this space system has been in existence.
"It might sound obvious, but each accident has a cause of its own," says Igor Lisov. "However, when a standard piece of equipment, which had worked fine seven hundred times, suddenly fails, you should start looking for technical breaches and negligence." Standard equipment can be manufactured successfully provided the proper controls are in place. "However, so far we have failed to achieve even the most basic things, such as making sure that the salary of a space engineer is higher than the salary of a cell phone salesperson," laments the expert. "If we don't achieve that, any attempts to ensure a good work ethic are doomed."
"Systemic crisis calls for systemic ways of dealing with it. Setting right goals, providing with adequate resources, setting tough performance benchmarks, and putting in prison for theft," says Igor Lisov.
"Equipment can fail," says Igor Korotchenko, "but previous accidents (the loss of Glonass among the most obvious cases - RIA Novosti) clearly showed that people were also at fault. That includes an erosion in work ethic and negligence in general... Unfortunately, the latter is widespread, not only in the space industry."
The expert believes that the latest accidents have tarnished the country's reputation in the field of space exploration and call for "greater attention to developments in the industry."
"Certainly, we need to make sure that the industry gets enough financing, on the one hand, but, on the other hand, we need to adopt tough personnel and administrative decisions to remedy the situation when money is coming in, but things stay the way they are," says Korotchenko.
"The appointment of Vladimir Popovkin (head of the Russian Federal Space Agency - RIA Novosti) can in some way be compared to appointment of Anatoly Serdyukov (defense minister - RIA Novosti)," says Ruslan Pukhov. "When they realized that the industry was getting more government financing but the results were still extremely poor, they decided to appoint a man with excellent managerial skills."
Ruslan Pukhov believes that steps to restructure the space industry will come soon. "They just don't have any other choice," says Pukhov. "Otherwise, the situation will just continue downhill. There's no way it can get any better."
In his recent interview with Kommersant, Vladimir Popovkin said that "the oversized industry is the biggest problem."
"Given the level of funding that I mentioned, it is not possible to use the aerospace industry to full capacity. The utilization of industrial capacity averages 33%-35%," he says. "Therefore, it needs to be streamlined. The Space Agency is already past the first stage of streamlining now that it has lined up its holding companies according to the vertical principle. The next step is to bring those vertical holdings together horizontally. This is what we are going to do now."
According to Vladimir Popovkin, 14 integrated entities accounting for over 50% of the industry's enterprises should be established before the end of 2011. "Then, we will plan for other changes," he said.
In all likelihood, planning for further changes will be accelerated across the industry. In addition, according to the statement released by the press service of the Russian Space Agency on August 25, a standing task group including experts from the Space Agency, the Central R&D Engineering Institute and the Keldysh Research Center will soon begin monitoring the entire production cycle for space equipment.