Roscosmos Chief: Extreme Measures Needed to Save Russian Space Industry — UPDATED

Roscosmos Head Vladimir Popovkin. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin says “extreme measures” are required to prevent the Russian space industry from becoming competitive uncompetitive with Western nations where productivity is two to four times higher.

“If nothing changes, we won’t be able to sell [Russian space technology] in 2015, because Western equipment will be priced 33 to 50 percent lower,” Popovkin said.

In order to raise productivity, Roscosmos ought to be converted into a space industry holding company that is not under direct state control. The new structure would be able to optimize headcounts at enterprises in the sector and better compete to hire the best people, he said.

Popovkin suggested that the “lower stages” in the production chain should pass into private hands, and called for a fundamental shift in the state’s focus from producing a final product to providing conditions conducive to success.

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UPDATE:  James Oberg has written a much more detailed account of remarks that Popovkin gave at an engineering institute on Thursday as well as complaints by Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who returned from the International Space Station on Sept. 17, about conditions aboard the Russian segment of the facility. The highlights:

  • Popovkin’s remarks on competitiveness were aimed squarely at Western commercial rocket efforts such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which he worries will make Russia’s launchers uncompetitive within three or four years. (Although Oberg doesn’t mention it, Musk has made a similar prediction.)
  • The launch industry, which is a legacy of the Soviet era, is one of the few segments where Russia is competitive and earns money. It’s collapse would have very severe consequences on the Russian space program.
  • Officials have little idea of what to do with the sprawling aerospace industrial base left over from the Soviet era. The industry has too much capacity and a workforce that is too large and too old, leading to inefficiency and a lack of competitiveness. The technology base also is completely outdated.
  • Russia must simultaneously reduce the number of space companies and workers while attracting new, younger talent that has avoided working in the industry over the past 20 years.
  • Padalka said conditions are so spartan on the Russian segment of the space station, especially compared with the U.S. segment, that he compared them to “khrushchevka,” the derisive nickname given to the massive and uncomfortable apartment buildings constructed in the 1960’s under Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
  • Padalka said that without improvements, the year-long missions that Russia wants to fly to the space station are completely unacceptable. These flights are designed to free up seats on Soyuz spacecraft for tourists who pay tens of millions of dollars for short stays aboard the orbiting laboratory.