Russia’s Ambitious Space Plan Overshadowed by Controversies

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

Pity the poor Russian space agency, Roscosmos.  After more than a year of launch accidents, harsh criticism from the nation’s rulers, a change in leadership at the top, and the appointment of a high-level czar to clean up the mess at the failure-prone space agency, word leaked out recently of a long-range plan for the nation’s space effort that would land cosmonauts on the moon and accomplish many other cool space activities.

This would normally be a positive sign that officials could point to as evidence of a space agency turning itself around. Unfortunately, the leak occurred amid a series of very public disputes and embarrassments that have overshadowed everything else. The problems have included a dismal response to a cosmonaut recruitment effort, an alleged brawl between two of Russia’s top space officials over a smoking hot model/business escort turned personal press secretary who seems ill suited for her job, a call for Roscosmos’ leader to step down, and a demand by the deputy prime minister for everyone to shut the frak up.

Quite a mess, huh? Well, first thing’s first. Russia’s new plan for space exploration through 2030 envisions

a step-by-step modernization of the space industry, development of new spacecraft including space shuttles, and active exploration of solar planets.

“The goal of the strategy is to ensure that the Russian space industry maintains its world-level standards and solidifies its position among the top three space powers,” Kommersant cited the text of the document.

According to the draft, Russia must increase its share of the global space market to 10 percent by 2030, compared to only 0.5 percent in 2011….

Russia is planning to carry out several space exploration missions, including a piloted flight to the Moon with landing on its surface and sending probes to Venus and Jupiter.

“In cooperation with foreign partners Roscosmos plans to deploy a network of permanent research stations on Mars,” the document says.

Sounds great. Whether they will be able to do this will depend upon whether Russia can reverse the severe shortage of aerospace workers, upgrade its aging facilities, develop a new generation of technologies, and reverse a trend that sees about 20 percent of the money spent in the civilian and defense sectors lost to waste, fraud and abuse. Without seeing the details of the plan, it’s difficult to judge precisely how they want to go about accomplishing this plan.

But seriously, good luck with that. Especially with Russia facing at least six more years (or 12) of being ruled by Vladimir Putin, who by most accounts stands at the very top of the kleptocratic pyramid of insiders that rule over the nation.

Whatever the long-term prospects for Russia’s space program, the last couple of weeks have been a bit of a massive headache. The problems started when Russian media reported that Roscosmos Head Vladimir Popovkin had been hospitalized for several days due to “physical and emotional exhaustion” as a result of a brutal schedule that included frequent international travel on behalf of the struggling Russian space program he was brought in to turn around last April.

A Russian tabloid of questionable reliability named Life News quickly posted a picture of Popovkin with his head bandaged and reported that he was drunk at the time he was admitted to the hospital. Roscosmos subsequently clarified the story, saying that Popovkin was so exhausted from trying to save Russia’s space program that he had fallen down a set of stairs and bashed his head on a marble railing.

Soon, media were reporting that Popovkin did indeed hit his head, but it wasn’t on a marble railing. Reportedly, a man smashed a bottle over the head of the Russian space chief after the two men got into a fight over a woman at a March 8 party to mark International Women’s Day.

Roscosmos Head Vladimir Popovkin and his press secretary, fomer model Anna Vedischeva.

The supposed woman in question? Popovkin’s personal press secretary, Anna Vedischeva, a 27-year-old former model he hired last year despite her complete lack of knowledge of the Russian space program and zero experience in public relations. Her appointment last June outraged agency insiders.  The Express subsequently reported on exactly what type of modeling Vedischeva had done:

The modelling agency’s website, which offers women for “business escorting” services but claims not to be functioning currently, reveals her vital statistics and features a topless glamour pose.

And the man who allegedly wielded the bottle against Popovkin? Media have reported that it was Alexander (or Aleksander) Paramonov, whom is reportedly the deputy director general of Star City. He is said to have been admitted to the same hospital with a concussion and a broken nose on the same day.

If this did indeed happen, both of them would be summarily dismissed from their positions, probably before they even left the hospital. But, this is Putin’s Russia, so many normal rules of conduct and accountability don’t always apply. And since Russian tabloids are reporting the details, the accuracy of these reports is dodgy.

Popovkin gave a tough-talking interview to Izvestia that was republished on the Roscosmos website in which he said that the press reports about an alleged brawl were not only false but a response by business leaders threatened by his reform efforts. A translation of his response via Google Translate:

That nonsense that was published on the Internet, does not correspond to reality, even half a percentage point. That background information, which was created in the early days of my illness has allowed me to understand that some business leaders Roscosmos have something to lose as a result of ongoing reforms in the industry. And if the majority of them understand that change is overdue and they are necessary, then individual managers put his survival above the interests of the industry and the prestige of the Russian space industry. Everything will be done to the financial flows are transparent and open.

In the Q&A, Popovkin made accusations about financial irregularities and mismanagement by the joint stock company, Russian Space Systems, which is a group of companies that has developed the Russian geo-positioning constellation GLONASS and other satellite systems. The Google translation of this section of the interview is not entirely clear, so it’s difficult to say just how serious the problems are that government auditors uncovered.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. (Credit: A. Savin)

The interesting part is that a federally-supported contractor dependent upon the good graces of government officials was not afraid to hit back at Popovkin, whose role at Roscosmos has been overshadowed since December when Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was appointed as a special space and defense czar to clean up the scandal-wracked and failure prone sectors.

In a letter posted last Wednesday on the company’s website, Popovkin was accused of organizational and financial mismanagement, including “illegal audits”. The letter was later removed from the website on the grounds that it was intended for internal use and posted by mistake.

Popovkin’s spokeswoman Vedishcheva said the accusations were “a part of a ‘media provocation’ against her boss.”

After this public spat roiled through the media, Rogozin condemned both parties for embarrassing the Russian space program.

“Dmitry Rogozin is extremely critical about the scandal around Roscosmos. He categorically prohibited the management and employees of subordinate structures to publicly discuss this issue,” the deputy premier’s spokeswoman Lidiya Mikhailova said.

She quoted Rogozin as saying that “such public disagreements and strong accusations may do significant damage to the Russian space industry.”

Actually, it might be a good thing that this dirty laundry is being air publicly. It shows that there is some degree of public accountability in Russia and a somewhat free press to write about these disputes. What it says about the ability of Roscosmos to carry out the ambitious space agenda it plans through 2o30 is another question all together. Time will tell.