Russia’s Solution to Roscosmos Problem: Militarize It?

As engineers continue their investigation of the Soyuz launch failure (a malfunctioning gas generator is to blame) and rejigger their launch schedule, a far more important question is being debated: what to do about the suddenly bumbling Russian space agency, Roscosmos.

One possible answer emerged this week: re-militarize it.

The Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos said on Wednesday it is considering returning the federal space program to the framework of the state defense order to ensure steady financing and reduce the number of accidents with space launches.

“It would be beneficial to return the federal space program and the Glonass program to the framework of the state defense order,” said Vitaly Davydov, deputy head of Roscosmos.

“It would bolster discipline in issues related to financing, quality control and schedule deadlines in manufacturing,” Davydov said.

It’s hard to know what to make of this statement from the space agency’s second in command. Is it a description of the restructuring that is already in the works? Or simply speculation about what could happen?

Earlier this month, Roscosmos Head Vladimir Popovkin spoke of major restructuring of both the space agency and the nation’s aerospace industry. The Russian general mentioned industry consolidation and major layoffs, but said nothing about putting the program under military control.

“[The Roscosmos reorganization] will create several new offices. The process is nearing completion, and the agency will pay particular attention to the management of organizations operating in the structure of the Russian Space Agency, the property set of issues, corporate governance.…This process coincided with the decision of the Russian Government to reduce civil servants by 20% to 2013: 5% will be reduced in 2011-2012, and 10% – in 2013,” he told the Kommersant newspaper.

Popovkin also said that the Russian space industry, which is only operating at 33 to 35 percent efficiency, will continue to be consolidated into a smaller number of joint stock corporations.

“The first phase of this optimization Roskosmos already passed by constructing holdings on the vertical lines. The next step – to connect the vertical holding each other. To start the optimization of the horizontal. It now will be done,” he said.

Current priorities include the creation of the Comet and Iosifyan joint stock companies. The Khrunichev consortium will be expanded and a new company established based on CDB Heavy Machinery.

“In general, at the end of the year there should be 14 integrated companies, covering more than 50% of the industry. Then we will plan further changes,” Popovkin added.

Although probably beneficial in the long-run, reorganizations and layoffs tend to be disruptive and emotionally wrenching in the short term. And that is the last thing that a struggling space agency needs at this point as it attempts to recovery from a very bad year. Will quality control continue to suffer?

None of these moves really solves a much more fundamental problem: an aging, dwindling workforce and a lack of replacements.

There is no manpower on which to spend the funds. Space enterprises have lost much of their skilled work force during the post-Soviet lull, and now they may require a decade or more to train new employees.

For space engineers, for one, it will take about 20 years to train a new generation, provided that young engineers can be motivated to work in the industry, Ionin said. This is not a given because large governmental spending has so far had little impact on modest salaries in the industry.

“There’s a general consensus that a specialist in a space industry enterprise shouldn’t be getting the salary of an ice cream vendor,” Lisov said. He said the average engineer’s salary is under 30,000 rubles ($1,000) per month.

Russia has lost four rockets in the past nine months. If the Soyuz had been carrying a crew, they might have lost them. And there’s no other way to get to the space station.
Whatever the Russians do, the emphasis must be on improving quality control. The cost of failure is far too high, for both Roscosmos and its international partners.
As for NASA, it’s priority must be on fielding a space shuttle replacement, as soon and as safely as possible. That will require leadership from our elected officials, who must put aside partisan and regional interests on behalf of deeper national and international goals.