On August 23, Russian first deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin sacked three officials at the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center following the crash of an unmanned unmanned Russian Proton-M rocket seventeen seconds after it lifted off from Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan on July 2, after an emergency shutdown. Not only was this an expensive accident — the rocket was carrying three satellites for Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation system, together worth about $200 million — it also threw Moscow’s space program’s problems into sharp relief.
The three who lost their jobs are some of the center’s senior figures, including deputy director-general Alexander Kobzar, but more dismissals are possible once the investigation of the accident concludes at the end of September: Rogozin has promised “extremely harsh” measures. Meanwhile Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos, was formally reprimanded on August 22.
This is understandable: in the past three years, only 47 percent of Russian satellites have been successfully launched. Furthermore, many of the problems have been down to basic human error. In 2012, for example, an advanced GEO-IK-2 geodesic satellite fell to earth after spending seventeen months trapped in too low an orbit by a flawed launch. In 2010, a Proton rocket, again with a payload of three navigation satellites, crashed into the Pacific after being fueled incorrectly.
The former head of Russian Space Forces, Popovkin took over Roscosmos in 2011, but has been reportedly frustrated at every turn by endemic corruption, a complacent management culture and vicious inter-agency conflicts. Indeed, in 2012 he was briefly hospitalized for exhaustion. He has also demonstrated a sometimes clumsy touch, such as when he suggested that the failure of the Fobos-Grunt Mars mission in 2011 might have been the result of foreign sabotage. His time at Roscosmos may well be coming to a close as he has been unable to turn round the agency’s decline.
At present, the Russian space program’s main virtues are that it exists and that it is cheap. A Proton rocket has, for example, around a 10 per cent failure rate but a launch is relatively cheap, allowing users to offset higher insurance costs. However, as the U.S.’s NASA develops its delivery vehicles and new commercial options for both manned space flight and satellite launches enter the market, Russia’s competitive advantage is shrinking.
The Finance Ministry has announced that the budget for the federal space program for 2013-2020 would be cut by $19 billion while Roscosmos’s budget is being capped. Nonetheless, Russia’s space program is both a geopolitical priority and source of national pride and there is no suggestion President Putin wants to abandon it. Commercial logic might suggest that the program needs to be broken up and diversified, but both Rogozin and Putin’s instincts tend towards creating massive state-dominated super-corporations. It may be that Russia is heading back to a Soviet-style program thanks to the recent spate of problems.