Meanwhile, Back on Planet Putin….

Vladimir Putin (Credit: www.kremlin.ru)

Previously on Planet Putin…. Yet another rocket launch went awry, plunging the Russian space program back into a crisis from which it failed to emerge last year. The two Dmitrys sprang into action, promising to name and shame those responsible and to turn around the floundering space program once and for all.  Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave Roscomos a month to come up with a plan to fix things. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin vowed to personally oversee the establishment of a new quality control system. Heads began to roll as a high-level official resigned. Meanwhile, Ruler for Life Vladimir Putin maintained a steely silence.

And yet despite this frenzy of activity, matters have somehow become even murkier…

The Resignation that Was(n’t?)

On Wednesday, Russian media reported the resignation of Vladimir Nesterov, general director of Khrunichev Space Center. Khrunichev produces the Proton rocket and Breeze-M upper stage, the latter of which malfunctioned to strand the two communications satellites in useless orbits.

On Friday, Space News reported that he had not left his post:

But as of late Aug. 16 Nesterov had not been dismissed, according to a statement from Khrunichev.

“The general director of Khrunichev can be appointed to his post, or dismissed, only by the Russian Federation President,” Khrunichev said in the statement, which was provided by its U.S. commercial Proton sales arm, International Launch Services (ILS) of Reston, Va. “Since the president has not signed a decree to dismiss him, Mr. Nesterov will continue to act as Khrunichev GD.”

Vladimir Nesterov (Credit: Khrunichev)

As of Tuesday night, I haven’t found any updates online concerning Nesterov’s status. He is still listed as Khrunichev’s general director on the company’s website.

Putin has largely left this latest space crisis in the hands of the two Dmitrys — Medvedev and Rogozin. Last December, Putin appointed Rogozin as a special czar to clean up inefficiency, corruption and incompetence in the space and defense sectors. Clearly, he still has some work to do.

A departure by Nesterov would have a major impact on a crucial company. In addition to the Proton booster, Khrunichev also launches smaller payloads aboard the Rockot, a converted ballistic missile. The company is also developing the Angara family of rockets, which is set to make its debut in 2013.

Roscosmos, Incorporated?

Medvedev has given Roscosmos one month to come up with a plan to improve quality control in the space industry. It turns out that this mandate may go far beyond quality control, possibly resulting in organizational changes that would fundamentally alter the Russian space agency and the industry.

The Federal Space Agency might be transformed into a state corporation, Vladimir Popovkin, head of the agency, said Thursday.

“Under one possible scenario, we’ll consider setting up a state corporation called Roskosmos similarly to Rosatom,” he said. “We’re preparing such proposals. Our country’s prime minister and president have the final say.”

As is often the case, the Russian news story included no elaboration on why this is being considered, what problems it would solve, or what it would mean in terms of operations. Either reporters don’t ask such questions or officials simply refuse to answer them. Either way, it’s not a sign of a healthy Russian media environment.
We can look at Rosatom to get some sense of what the restructured Roscosmos might look like. According to the Rosatom website, it could be a move to centralize the entire Russian space industry under government leadership:
The State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom incorporates more than 250 enterprises and scientific institutions, including all civil nuclear companies of Russia, nuclear weapons complex’s facilities, research organizations and the world’s only nuclear-propelled fleet. ROSATOM is the largest utility in Russia which produces more than 40 % of electricity in the country’s European part.

If Rosatom is the model for Roscosmos reform, then this approach would result in an even more centralized space industry. According to Rosatom’s website, this organizational structure has worked well for nuclear energy:

Rosatom holds leading positions in the world market of nuclear technologies being the 1st in the world simultaneous nuclear build abroad; 2nd in uranium reserves and 5th in uranium mining; 4th in nuclear electricity generation, while providing 40% of the world uranium enrichment services and 17% of the world nuclear fuel market. Rosatom is also tasked to fulfill Russia’s international obligations in the field of the peaceful uses of atomic energy and nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Space is a different arena, however. The question is whether such a structure would give the industry the freedom to stay competitive in an increasingly commercialized market. Would companies be able to complete against SpaceX, for example?

The other question is whether such a bureaucratic operation would solve one of the Russian space industry’s biggest problems: attracting urgently need replacement. Officials are attempting to address this problem in other ways, but this type of reorganization could be counter-productive by producing a stifling bureaucracy that younger workers would avoid.

Throwing Money at the Problem?

In remarks last week, Medvedev reminded everyone of the the Russian government intention to invest heavily in space, with a commitment of 650 billion rubles ($20.4 billion) between 2012 and 2015. This, of course, pales in comparison to the amount the U.S. government spends, which is in excess of $17 billion annually just on NASA. However, it is clear Medvedev wants to make sure the money isn’t wasted.

Russian space spending also pales alongside what the government plans to spend on revamping its military, which has close ties to the space sector. Putin’s government plans to pour 23 trillion rubles ($723 billion) into rearmament over the next decade ending in 2023.

Writing in the The Moscow Times,  Alexander Golts says Russia’s launch failures are just the tip of the iceberg of much larger problems. He believes the military-industrial complex has rotted away, that much of the money will end up being wasted, and that the expenditures have a lot to do with shoring up Putin’s base of support.

These [launch] failures provide a good indication of what to expect from the ambitious rearmament program, which will cost 23 trillion rubles ($723 billion) over 10 years. The space industry is supposed to be the most advanced in the country’s military-industrial complex. At least a quarter of all defense contracts go toward developing the space industry. [Emphasis mine]

Nevertheless, we are seeing one accident after another. There is reason to believe that the situation is even worse in other areas of the military, including aviation, shipbuilding, tanks and armored vehicles. Unlike Russia’s domestic failures, the failures in the space industry, which involve contractual obligations to international companies, are impossible to cover up.

But even secrecy cannot change the sad fact that the defense industry is simply unable to produce high-quality weapons systems. [Emphasis mine]

[…]

To make matters worse, the military-industrial complex created by President Vladimir Putin, which is really just a copy of the Soviet system, is crippled by the fact that it is overly bureaucratic, inefficient and corrupt.

According to Golts, a particularly troubling aspect is that although Putin knows what the problems are, he seems to have no viable plan for fixing them:

At the same time, Putin is well aware of these problems in the defense industry. At a meeting last month on upgrading the Ground Forces, he argued at length about how in the manufacture of military equipment “dozens of subcontractors are involved, and sometimes even hundreds of subcontractors. Any failure or delay in the execution of a contract may actually derail the whole job.”

Someone probably tried to explain to Putin that integration among the  chains in the military-­industrial complex is one of the weakest points of the domestic defense industry. Yet later in the meeting, he didn’t budge. Instead, he demanded the impossible: “All the delivery schedules of weapons and equipment must be met in full, on time and at the agreed-on prices.”

Golts is right. “Make it so” just isn’t going to work.

This points to a larger problem. Putin has rebuilt Russia’s economy on its exports of oil, gas and natural resources. Meanwhile, the high-tech sector has lagged. Developing it require a level of openness, a respect for the rule of law, a tolerance of independent power centers, and limits on corruption that are greatly odds with Putin’s increasingly autocratic and centralized rule. Putin’s regime is thus trapped in a paradox between what it is and what it needs to do.

Why this Matters

The stakes are high for Russia and the world. The geo-political implications of Russia’s rearmament program is beyond the scope of this post. However, there are some clear implications for the success of the nation’s space program.

NASA depends upon an increasingly autocratic Russia with a floundering space sector for Soyuz rides to the International Space Station. United Launch Alliance and the United States Air Force is dependent upon a Russian provided engine for its Atlas V rocket. That rocket will likely prove crucial for NASA’s effort to resume sending astronauts into space.

If quality control problems creep into the Soyuz and Atlas V programs, the consequences would be quite severe for ISS operations and American national security. If a serious political rift develops over Putin’s autocratic policies, then the U.S.-Russian space cooperation that has developed so well over the last 20 years could screech to a sudden halt. If that happened, both nations would be in uncharted territory. The results could be quite unpredictable.

  • reader

    So. Russians basically own the actual “commercial” part of the worldwide launch market, i.e. payloads that have no political restrictions go to them.

    If they don’t sort their act out fast, that’s going to boost Chinese launch industry, while US is trying to figure out if “commercial” means government handouts in advance or after CDR meetings.

  • warshawski

    The alternate is you fly with SpaceX, using rocket motors built in the US. I believe the Air Force should be using Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy for some of it paylaods now so thiswould give SpaceX a foot in the door. On the flip side if the Russians have problems it would leave SpaceX having an effective monopoly on US launch services and monopolies are never a good thing.
    Perhaps it is time that ULA and Orbital looked at an alternate sources for rocket motors.