As Russian Space Industry Tumbles, the Kremlin Steps In — Again

The Progress 65 spacecraft is pictured at its launch pad Nov. 29 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Last year was not a particularly good one for the Russian space program.

The country fell behind China and the United States in launches. Its 19 attempts were the lowest in years. The Proton rocket flew only three times before being ground for more than half a year due to a launch anomaly. In December, a Soyuz malfunction sent a Progress cargo ship crashing back into Earth’s atmosphere — the latest in a long string of failures going back to 2009.

With Russia entering 2017 with its two main satellite boosters grounded, it was time for the Kremlin to step in. Not the Kremlin’s top dog, of course. Vladimir Putin usually leaves the messy job of knocking heads together in the perpetually troubled space industry to his right-hand man, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin.

So, Rogozin parachuted in from his main job of rebuilding the Russian military industrial complex to give a little TLC to an industry he’s been in charge of fixing for the past six years with uncertain success.  This time, the problem was the Voronezh Machine-Building Plant, which has been building defective engines for the Proton and Soyuz boosters as of late.

“Yesterday (on Monday) I signed instructions to Roscosmos to scrutinize all industrial enterprises crucial to ensuring the flawless performance of space rockets, engines, various components and parts, control systems and devices that are expected to stay in orbit long and show impeccable performance,” Rogozin said, according to Tass.

Oh, good. That should solve the problem. Theoretically, anyway.

But, one might be tempted to ask, shouldn’t Roscosmos be doing that anyway? Why did you have to issue an order for that to happen? Especially after six years of repeated launch failures caused by poor control?

Another fine day for Russia’s space program. A Proton crashes with three GLONASS satellites.

Apparently, nobody from Tass asked these questions. Or, if they did, they didn’t get any answers.

In fairness, Roscosmos hasn’t exactly been doing nothing since the Proton was grounded nearly eight months ago. So, the order might only be an expansion of on-going review work.

Roscosmos recalled all of Proton’s second and third stage engines manufactured by Voronezh.  Three boosters were taken apart and their engines replaced.

And engineers seem to have discovered the source of the problem. The solder on the engines did not meet technical requirement. But, get this: the solder was actually more expensive than the material it replaced. Well, the supplier made out pretty well.

Rogozin told Tass the problem lay in confusion over technical documentation. That’s very strange given that Voronezh has been churning out Proton and Soyuz engines for many, many years. Decades, actually. Both boosters were developed in the 1960’s. So, why should anyone confused over documentation? Were there new, inexperienced employees on the job?

Once again, Tass doesn’t come through with any answers.

In the longer, more detailed version of the story that ran on Tass’s Russian language website, Rogozin pointed to one serious problem underlying the problems at Voronezh: low pay.

Employees at the engine builder receiving only 10,000 to 15,000 rubles per month, which works out to between $166 and $249. That’s not very much at all. Especially with the ruble’s decline against the dollar and the rise of inflationary pressure.

Of course, the scourges of low pay and an aging workforce have been a perpetual issue in the Russian space program.  Officials have made efforts to boost salaries and make the industry attractive to new workers, but Rogozin’s comments suggest those efforts have fallen short.

Meanwhile, Russian officials have acknowledged that the space sector is bloated and inefficient, with too many workers doing too little work. So, at the same time the industry needs to attract talented replacement workers, it also needs to shed tens of thousands of existing workers who have the expertise needed to keep the rockets launching on time.

As anyone who has gone through major corporate reorganizations knows, it can be an extremely stressful experience that leads to severe morale problems.  Knowing where, what and who to cut so the organization comes out leaner, more efficient and an attractive place for new recruits to work is an extremely difficult task. A botched reorg can send an organization spiraling further downward.

Roscosmos — which has been reorganized from a space agency into a government-owned corporation — is in charge of that effort. The entire space industry is being put under the auspices of Roscosmos, which is run by former auto industry executive Igor Komarov.

If restructuring the entire industry was not difficult enough, Komarov has had to deal with an economy struggling under low oil prices and Western sanctions imposed over Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine. Roscosmos has been forced to repeatedly trim back its long-range plans for space exploration.

Given the generally closed nature of the Russian government, it’s difficult to know exactly just how far Komarov’s reorganization has progressed, and whether the quality control problems are being properly addressed. Will things begin to get better? Or will we continue to see a string of failures, with Rogozin issuing orders when things get really bad?

The future will tell.