Crash of the Titans

A Titan rocket explodes just after liftoff. (Credit: USAF)
A Titan rocket explodes just after liftoff. (Credit: USAF)

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

Incompetence. Corruption. An aging workforce. Few replacement workers. Low salaries. Rising costs. Abysmal morale. Declining quality. A lack of accountability. Zero transparency. And an extremely pissed off political leadership.

Russia’s space program has got ’em all. If there was ever a perfect storm for a government bureaucracy, Roscosmos is right smack in the middle of it following the failure of yet another Proton rocket on Monday. Its Breeze-M upper stage stranded two satellites in a useless orbit, once again shining a harsh spotlight on the increasingly decrepit state of that nation’s once mighty program.

Once again, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is calling a meeting amid a “crisis” atmosphere to demand answers, just like he did back in 2011 while holding Vladimir Putin’s presidential seat warm. At that time, a whole series of launch mishaps led to the firing of Roscosmos’ leader and the appointment of hard-line Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin as a special space and defense czar.

The latter move seemed to have paid off — at least for a while. Russia went over seven months without losing a rocket or satellite. But, then on Monday, only hours after the Americans had landed a massive rover on Mars using a system that would have baffled even Rube Goldberg, that streak of perfection was ended. It was time to change that “7 Months Without a Launch Mishap” sign back to zero and go back to the drawing board.

There may not be any easy answers. In a lengthy and surprisingly detailed story on ITAR-TASS, Lyudmila Alexandrova lays out just how decayed the Russian space program has become:

“It is impossible to repair for six months the situation, which had emerged in the industry for many years,” the Novye Izvestia daily quoted Director of the Centre for Analysis of World Arms Trade Igor Korotchenko as saying. Reshuffles in the staff cannot settle the problem. “The control over the industry should be established, the quality should be raised, and redundant mediators should be cut,” he believes.

“For the last few years the space industry has not been reformed yet. The corruption is reigning in it. The prices are growing, but the quality is falling. There is no tough control over the quality of component parts, which are delivered by the subcontractors, which had mushroomed around the enterprises of the space industry. The transparency of pricing lacks that resulted in multi-billion budgetary injections to be wasted,” head of the international security centre in the Russian Academy of Sciences Alexei Arbatov stated.

Director for development and marketing of the company of space security systems Autolocator Gleb Slavutsky agreed with this opinion as well. “The failures went one after another. In my view, the lack of money is not so acute, as for instance, in the nineties of the previous century. The main problem consists in the lack of a clear organizing procedure and quality control. Meanwhile, the quality control lacks at all stages. This problem is aggravated with the lack of qualified personnel,” he acknowledged.

“The Khrunichev Space Centre, which produces the upper stages Briz-M, should primarily focus on the quality control system,” the former space chief specialist of the Russian Armed Forces Vladimir Uvarov told the Rossiiskaya Gazeta daily. The latest space crash resulted from the collapse of that powerful structure, which had been created for the development of the national space program some time ago. “The control system was ruined in the civil life and in the armed forces,” Uvarov said.

“Roscosmos has abolished the agency, which was specialized in launch vehicles and upper stages, and now the whole scope of required measures is not taken in the pre-launch testing,” former Roscosmos head Anatoly Perminov told Itar-Tass. The responsibility became vague, it is quite hard to find those guilty in case of any emergency situation, he explained.

I know that this failure involved a Proton and that it is not connected to the Soyuz rockets and spacecraft the world depends upon for access to the International Space Station. But, the problems here seem to be so widespread and so deeply engrained that I fear an extremely bad day is looming. And then what will we do?

America’s failure to field a replacement for the space shuttle in time, coupled with the advanced atrophy of Russia’s space program, could bring the world’s largest and most successful human spaceflight program to an inglorious halt. Future generations will look back and ask the same question I’m posing now: What the hell were you guys thinking?