Russia Space Sector Damaged by Focus on Quantity, Not Quality

Proton rocket

Jim Oberg penned a detailed account for Aerospace America of the problems affecting the Russian space program, which has seen a perilous decline in quality in recent years resulting in numerous launch failures.  It seems that at least part of the problem has resulted from an inspection process that has shifted from ensuring quality to increasing quantity.

“The current quality assurance system was created in Soviet times,” the source explained. “Quality is controlled at all stages of launch vehicle, upper-stage, and spacecraft production and assembly. It is the plant’s technical control department and military representatives, that is to say representatives of the armed forces in civilian organizations, that give the go-ahead for the finished, assembled product to be shipped to the spaceport.”

The difference today is that these former military inspectors are now paid by the civilian companies. So the greater the amount of hardware shipped, the better their relations with their management, and the bigger their bonuses will be. Thus they have become reluctant to make a fuss if a fault is found with a rocket or satellite. Instead, the source reported, “everything is settled internally.”

“It is simply impossible to tackle this job in task-force format,” the source believes. It would be ineffective, creating yet another management structure and spreading responsibility for quality control “even more thinly,” he said. The recommendation also is unworkable, he continued, because it does not explain where to get the required staff of hundreds of trained experts — the kind of workers that “virtually every company is now short of.”

Instead he recommended the acquisition of computerized quality control systems, to be “introduced from the bottom up, on site” in all stages of fabrication and testing. “This process is expensive and not quick, but there’s hardly another way.”

Oberg’s article also discusses the efforts being overseen by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to resolve these problems. These measures include overhauling the quality control system, making a massive investment in new manufacturing technologies to replace worn out equipment, and punishing corrupt and incompetent officials.

The government also needs to lure a new generation of workers into the field to replace an increasingly aging workforce.  Many people avoided entering the field during the 1990’s when the Russian aerospace sector struggled to survive amid the economic chaos that engulfed the nation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Salaries in the industry remain low today.

Oberg concludes that the recovery plan is sound, but that it faces significant obstacles and will require time to implement.

While these are laudable goals with a reasonably high likelihood of success in the long run—especially if sufficient young talent is induced to enter the aerospace labor market—the priority in terms of attention and resources given to the defense-related industries may leave the spaceflight industry recovery underfunded and under managed, even with Popovkin’s best efforts. And the “long run” implies that many of the factors that contributed to recent problems remain in effect, even if somewhat diminished. The lamentably long list of recent Russian space setbacks—and their worldwide consequences—may not be complete.

I’m going to disagree with Oberg a little here. The Russians have lost a number of their own satellites, something that is completely unacceptable to the nation’s leadership. Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev were livid when the string of failures began two years ago with the loss of three navigational satellites that would have allowed the nation to finally complete the GLONASS constellation, which had been in the works since the 1990’s.

The Russians also have gained quite a bit of currency launching commercial satellites for foreign customers, who like the low prices and high reliability the Russian can offer. If the reliability continues to suffer, then Russia’s market dominance will be threatened. One can imagine a scenario in which Russia has to fund an expensive overhaul of the industry while launch revenues diminish as satellite makers flee to other launch providers.

And there are an increasing number of competitors out there. SpaceX has booked more than $1 billion in launch orders, an achievement that has put the fear of God into competitors in the United States and Europe. Meanwhile, there is increased competition from China, which is looking to enter the international market in a much more significant way with its fleet of proven launch vehicles.

The overhaul of the spaceflight industry is a necessity for both national security and economic reasons. The question is how quickly the Russians can turn around an industry that has been in a sharp decline for 20 years. As Oberg points out, overhauling the industry’s decrepit technological base and attracting and training a new generation of professionals will take time and money.

In the meantime, the International Space Station will remain wholly dependent on Russian Soyuz vehicles for crew transportation for at least three more years.  And that, in my view, has made Congress’ failure to fully fund the President’s commercial crew requests all the more irresponsible. Having funded the development and operation of the space station for nearly 30 years, Congress seems in no rush to put the program on a firmer footing by closing the gap created by the retirement of the space shuttle. We can only hope that doesn’t come back to bite us.