New Russian Space Czar Hits Ground Running

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

Hardline Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, the Kremlin’s new defense and space czar, has hit the ground running this week as he attempts to turn around Russia’s failure-prone space sector.

Rogozin has ordered Roscosmos to produce a report analyzing its recent string of launch failures and to develop a master plan through 2030. The space czar also announced the creation a personnel reserve to deal with a shortage of space workers, and he warned trespassing bloggers to stay off the nation’s strategic space installations — or else.

[UPDATE: View the photos of the bloggers’ nocturnal visits to Energomash here.]

Rogozin ordered Roscosmos Head Vladimir Popovkin to submit a report analyzing the recent string of six launch failures that left eight satellites either destroyed or stranded in useless orbits, ITAR-TASS reports. The report, due by January 25, will include recommendations for immediate corrective actions.

Rogozin also revealed that Yuri Koptev, who previously headed the Russian space program, is being brought in to “conduct research of these problems.”

Roscosmos’ new master plan, due by the end of February, will cover the agency’s overall objectives in both human and robotic space exploration, ITAR-TASS reports.

“Following the order of Dmitry Rogozin and the order of Vladimir Putin, we should prepare a strategy of the space sector development to 2030 and later,” Popovkin told reporters.

During a joint press appearance, Rogozin and Popovkin announced the creation of a “personnel reserve” to address the shortage of qualified workers in the space field. It’s not clear precisely what this means, but it could be a reserve of retired employees to assist the space effort.

The industry has some very old workers and young, inexperienced ones, but is missing a solid core of middle managers. The causes include a post-Soviet economic slump that impelled many workers to leave the industry and current low compensation levels.

[Rogozin] promised that the level of professional training would continue to be raised and veterans of the Soviet space industry invited to join this effort.

Rogozin said that on January 23 he would hold a meeting with the rectors of the leading universities working for the defense industry and also for the space and nuclear power industries.

Popovkin presided over a similar meeting in late November that included the rectors of leading engineering and science universities as well as high-level space officials from government and industry.

Given the depth of the problem and how long it takes to educate and train new workers, it could take some time for Russia to fully address the crisis. The Washington Post recently published an in-depth look at the deep crisis affecting Russia’s science and technology efforts:

For the past decade, Russia has been pouring money into scientific research, trying to make up for the collapse of the 1990s, but innovation is losing out to exhaustion, corruption and cronyism.

In a rut and out of favor, the labs are barely wheezing here at Pushchino, once one of the brimming engines of Soviet science, a special closed city devoted to prestigious biological research. The government has turned its focus to newer ventures.

But the result has been like a great deal else in this country: expensive, flashy and largely hollow. Shot through with back-scratching and favoritism, the government’s science program has tripled its spending in the past 10 years — and achieved very little. The number of papers published in scientific journals is the same as it was in 2000 and as it was in 1990, even while the rest of the world’s output has exploded.

The article paints a depressing picture of decaying facilities, priorities warped by politics and corruption, rock-bottom morale, and poorly-paid scientists and engineers desperate to join colleagues who have already fled to work in the West.

In a sign of just how decayed the Russian space program has become, Rogozin this week gave Roscosmos until January to rectify security problems at its production facilities or face harsh punishments.

RIA Novosti reports that the order came after a group of bloggers claimed that they had wandered around the Energomash rocket plant in Moscow’s Khimki district for five days taking pictures without once encountering a single security officer. [UPDATE: View the photos here.]

Rogozin said harsh measures would be taken to enforce security and punish the “sleepy cats” responsible for the plant’s security.

“There will be no freewheeling,” he told Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin, and also gave a warning to the bloggers, who he called “cheeky mice.”

“I don’t advise anybody to penetrate strategic installations anymore,” he said.

The Energomash facility has holes in its security fence, but the company lacks the funds to repair them, according to Energia Rocket and Space Corporation’s Senior Vice President Vladimir Osmolovsky.

This is curious. Roscosmos’ budget has been rising sharply and the Americans are paying an ever increasing amount to send its astronauts into space aboard Soyuz vehicles. So, why doesn’t Energia have money to fix its fences? Why aren’t engineers being compensated properly? In short, where precisely are all those funds being spent?

That’s another question for Rogozin will have to answer. He has been tasked with routing out corruption and fraud. It is estimated that 1 in every 5 rubles spent on defense is stolen.

Of course, he was given that responsibility by his boss, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is reputed to be at the very apex of the rampant corruption that permeates Russian society. With Putin likely to be elected in February to a six-year term as president, are Rogozin’s efforts likely to succeed or fail?

This is not an academic question. The United States and its international partners are solely dependent upon Russia for access to the International Space Station. The American government should seriously consider ways of accelerating its schedule for fielding replacement vehicles to end that dependency.

The brain drain of scientists and engineers is worrisome from a security perspective. There is no shortage of autocratic regimes that pay handsomely for much needed expertise in weapons development.

This was a major consideration nearly 20 years ago when the Clinton Administration brought the Russians into the space station program to keep their workers employed in peaceful pursuits. History seems to be repeating itself now, with little prospect of ending the corruption, incompetence and waste that is causing Russia’s scientific brain drain in the first place.

  • Dave Huntsman

    It is to his credit that he initiates as his first action something realizing the strategic trained and educated personnel issue. We have a similar problem here in NASA, which I’ve been in for 35 years. In fact, one (of several) reasons that I opposed development of the SLS/Space Launch System, is that the NASA I am now in probably can’t do that vehicle now; with the problem of adequately trained and experienced personnel, including in the senior management ranks, being a major reason why. The result will, at the very least, be lots of schedule slips and being continuously over budget, in my opinion.