Russian Space Program is Rotting Away

Russia Behind the Headlines has a detailed story on the problems besetting that nation’s space program. In brief, Roscosmos is too small, the industry it oversees is too large, the workforce is too old, the technology is decrepit, and there’s not enough money to fund anything very ambitious.

Other than that, things are not bad…

Head of Roscosmos Vladimir Popovkin, for his part, noted that his agency had a staff of only 200, which is not enough to run the industry. Medvedev responded by asking whether or not doubling the staff would help to eliminate quality-control issues: Popovkin assured him that it would. In fact, it was the head of Roscosmos who had stressed earlier that the agency was short of qualified managers….

Roscosmos reacted to the series of accidents by proposing a sweeping reform of the industry. Under its plan, the space industry will have seven integrated organizations, instead of the 15 that currently exist. Designers of the plan hope that the reform will eliminate development and production redundancies within the industry and increase the load on enterprises, which currently operate at only 35 percent of their capacity.

The former head of Roscosmos, Anatoly Perminov, planned a similar reorganization of the space industry. He also tried to create holding companies, but without a clear division of their functions, which led to labor inefficiencies. For example, two similar rockets, the Angara and Rus-M, were being developed simultaneously by the Khrunichev Space Centre and S. P. Korolev RSC Energia respectively, which increased costs within the industry….

One of the space industry’s main problems is financing. A third of the industry’s enterprises are practically bankrupt. Compared to developed countries, Russia invests ten times less in research and development in the industry, and five times less in basic assets and personnel training.

“More than 70 percent of technologies that meet production needs are worn out and outdated. More than half of the machine tools are past their service lifespan. The average age of employees is 50, and at defense industry research institutes it is almost 60,” said retired Major General Vladimir Dvorkin, who was formerly the head of a Ministry of Defense research institute engaged in developing programs to upgrade Strategic Nuclear Forces.

This advanced state of decay has not stopped Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin — who is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s space czar — from declaring that there is no systemic crisis in the Russian space program. The hardline leader also wants Roscosmos to shoot for the moon — literally.

 “I would suggest targeting a ‘super goal,’ such as the creation of a lunar station,” the Russian deputy prime minister said. “There is a lot of competition amongst countries in the space sector, so we need a big ‘super goal’ that is capable of pulling science and industry forward; that would enable the country to escape from the morass of problems that have kept us trapped for the past 20 years,” said Rogozin. He called the task “ambitious, prestigious and political.”

Good luck with that.

The U.S. space program, which is in vastly better shape, has tried that twice over the last 20 years. Each time, the effort fell short.