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Can Russia stage a comeback in space?

Fifty years ago, the USSR was in the lead in the proxy war that was the space race, but now Russia is better known for rockets that either fail to launch or crash when they do.

The Russian space programme has been in the doldrums for a couple of decades now. It may have been the pride and joy of the USSR, but since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has been unable to create anything new out of the ageing technology it inherited from that time; and has been reduced to an endless rehashing of old designs, with limited success. But now it is crunch time: Russia has to either rethink its space exploration policy, and restructure the industry around new goals, or just leave its Soviet resources to run down until its decline becomes irreversible.

Structural changes

Discussion of the space industry’s ‘systemic crisis’ is nothing new: people were already talking about it in the early 2000s, when the space and aviation sectors were brought together under the aegis of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency (RAKA), set up some ten years earlier. But this structure was extremely unwieldy and, although the sectors were closely related, such close cooperation didn’t always produce effective results. 

Structural changes didn’t answer the key question: how to stop Russian rockets falling out of the skies.

In 2004, the two sectors were uncoupled, and the Russian Federal Space Agency, usually known as Roscosmos, was set up to coordinate the various industrial and scientific elements of the space programme, with aviation hived off to another body. In 2011, however, there were murmurings about Roscosmos being an equally inadequate framework; and calls for the creation of a single state-owned corporation, on the lines of the Rosatom nuclear energy corporation. After two years of arguing, however, this option was also rejected, and responsibility for the Russian space programme was divided between two bodies: Roscosmos would remain in charge of government space policy and would also look after commissioning and procurement, while a new state owned holding company, the United Rocket and Space Corporation, would manage most of the constituent facilities and act as general contractor. 

A Soviet Union stamp from 1972 celebrating 15 years of space age. Photo CC

These structural changes were all very well, but they did not answer the key question: how could they help Russian rockets launch successfully and not fall out of the skies; and satellites function in line with their technical specifications? Government bureaucrats and industry executives were agreed that the restructuring would ‘improve manageability,’ ‘raise production standards’ and so on. But this was basically all hot air: no one could guarantee that it would make any difference whatsoever.          

A lost culture

The hardware inherited from the USSR had in fact provided a good start – unique cutting-edge technology, of the time, for both civil and military rocket production. But it was not enough: the USSR had a whole production culture embraced by everyone involved, from the foreman on the factory floor to the chief designer. But in the past 20 years all that has disappeared; Russia has been unable to move its space programme forward and overtake the great achievements of the legendary Sergei Korolyov, the chief engineer of the Soviet space programme who died in 1966. What is worse is that, despite having all the necessary technical drawings, today’s Russian mechanics do not assemble parts with the same care and skill as their Soviet predecessors. The July 2013 Proton-M disaster, when a rocket exploded soon after lift-off, happened because three small parts, angular velocity sensors, had been installed upside down. The faulty installation of these fittings led to the loss, not only of a 2.6 billion rouble [over 43 million GBP] rocket, but also three GLONASS (similar to GPS) telecommunications satellites. In Soviet times, people could be shot for such a thing; now the name of the mechanic responsible has not even been released. 

We should just be grateful that the disasters of the last three years happened with automatically propelled spacecraft, not manned ones.

And what could be done with him anyway, this young man earning about 30,000 roubles (£500) a month on an assembly line? He could face a prison sentence, but that would not solve any problems. Any kind of show trial would only scare off those few people who want to work in the industry. The wages these people earn bears no relation to the amount of responsibility they carry. That is why young people prefer to go into business, commerce, economics – in fact anywhere else and it is only the older generation aged 70-75 who still work on factory production lines. We should just be grateful for the fact that the disasters of the last three years happened with automatically propelled spacecraft, not manned ones. Although Russia has quite a range of rockets built at various plants, they are all assembled in the same way and by the same hands. 


The loss of a transfer of skills from generation to generation is not the Russian space industry’s only problem; it also suffers from a plague endemic to the country as a whole: corruption. The production of rockets, space modules, boosters and other hardware is expensive, but because the lifting of payload into space is such a risky business, you can always turn the responsibility for the end result to your own advantage, as the bosses of companies involved frequently do. A rocket crashed? We need money to modernise our production process. A satellite doesn’t work? What do you want? It was cobbled together from odds and ends. 

Space is an almost infinite area for self-justification.

Space is an almost infinite area for self-justification. It is well known that in the mid-90s it was common for empty satellite casings to be launched into orbit, since the money for their working parts had disappeared into bosses’ pockets. It is difficult to say whether this is still happening: we live in different times, and the law enforcement agencies are more vigilant now. But if we look at the accidents that happen, an interesting picture emerges: insured launches that are part of government projects crash much more frequently than commercial launches, those ordered by foreign clients. In the end, the more product control is tightened up, the more sophisticated schemes appear for taking money out for the country. 

The launch arrival of Proton M. Photo CC: alexgp

Not just about money

Today the industry’s problems cannot be put down to a lack of funding: the Russian government has allocated the programme about three trillion roubles. But money alone is not the answer. The first thing that needs changing is the attitude to production. It is easy to talk about making it a more prestigious sector, but it is essential to raise wages to bring them in line with responsibility. The second thing is that the industry should not be afraid to jettison lines that have been in development for years without any results: the sector needs to rationalise. And the third thing is that it needs to lose its fear of innovation: Russia’s first new rocket since the end of the Soviet Union, the light-class Angara, was only launched last month after 20 years in development. 

We are still proud of our achievements in space, but we forget how long ago it all happened.

The supply of leftovers from Soviet times is not infinite, and we need to realise that its potential is running out fast. We are still proud of our achievements in space, but we forget how long ago it all happened; and we have no Korolyovs to lead us today. Russia has lost the impetus that would allow it to once again take a leap into space, and be first in the race. Nowadays we are in competition not only with the USA, but also with China, which would have been unimaginable 30 years ago.

All this leaves us with two choices. Either we go for broke, rediscover our old élan, and try to create something new and a new way of doing it, or we stock up on popcorn, and sit and watch the last throes of what was at the core of our national pride half a century ago.                

About the author

Ivan Safronov is a correspondent at Kommersant and an expert on the space industry.

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