As Proton Investigation Advances, Russia’s Space Crisis Roils On

Another fine day for Russia's space program. A Proton crashes with three GLONASS satellites.
Another fine day for Russia’s space program. A Proton crashes with three GLONASS satellites.

The recovery from Tuesday’s spectacular launch failure continues, with all future Proton launches suspended indefinitely, a special commission zeroing in on possible causes, Roscosmos getting harshly criticized for mismanaging the nation’s space program, and Russian prosecutors threatening jail tail for anyone held responsible for the loss the rocket and three GLONASS satellites.

Meanwhile, the crisis roiling the aging and inefficient Russian space industry roils on unabated.

But, first, the investigation.

“There are a number of theories and we have ruled out nothing for now,” Interfax quotes Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin. “It could be [a malfunction] of the launch pad hardware, the rocket control system and the first stage engine.”

One particular intriguing theory is that Proton’s first stage engines began firing .4 seconds early. “This is obvious that the rocket blasted-off before its engines started work on full capacity,” Popovkin told reporters.

For what it’s worth, several engineers I know who work on rockets are pretty skeptical of this explanation, based on the how the Proton veered in one direction and then another before completing pitching over and heading for the ground.

Meanwhile, those found responsible for the failure will be fired from their jobs and will most likely end up in jail.

No-one has been accused of causing the accident at this stage, but breaking launch safety rules leading to a crash carries a penalty of up to three years in prison according to Russian law…

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the defense and aerospace industry and has been ordered to oversee the investigation, said after the accident that “harsh decisions” must be taken, as Russia’s rocket and space industry “cannot continue to exist in its current form.”

Russia recently raised salaries in the space industry and embarked on an initiative to improve engineering and technical education and recruitment in an effort to improve conditions for existing employees and attract a new generation of workers to the field.

It’s not entirely clear why anyone believes that jail terms for will accomplish any of these goals. Who would want to enter — much less stay in — an industry where such punishments are meted out for non-fatal errors? However, it wouldn’t be the first time that the Russian government has tried to accomplish one goal while damaging its efforts to accomplish another.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Audit Chamber has criticized Roscosmos for doing a dreadful job of managing the nation’s space program.

The absence of a comprehensive management system in regard to space programs, projects, contracts and expenses under the Federal Space Program for 2006-15 made this program highly ineffective, despite the increase in budget spending for space exploration by 2.5 times in the past three years, the chamber said in a statement Thursday.

According to the results of a comprehensive review of managerial practices in Russia’s space industry, only 40 percent of the goals set by the Federal Space Program were achieved in 2010, 66.7 percent in 2011, and 73.3 percent last year.

In particular, Russia launched only 47.1 percent of the required number of satellites into orbit in 2010-12.

The Audit Chamber also blamed the Federal Space Agency, known as Roscosmos, for relegating control over major space projects, including the production and launches of Proton-M rockets, to individual state-run or private companies.

“Roscosmos is among the biggest and least disciplined [of government agencies] that blatantly ignore regulatory requirements and best practices in state procurement orders,” the Audit Chamber said.

According to press reports, Roscosmos only has about 200 employees, which is deemed insufficient to properly manage the space program. This has left much of the work in the hands of quasi-independent companies, which are beset by an aging workforce, a lack of replacement workers, worn out equipment, and a quality control system that is now focused on quantity rather than reliability. The industry is also over-sized, inefficient and beset by rampant corruption.

Popovkin floated a proposal last October to reorganize the entire space sector under the control of Roscosmos.

In order to sort out the space industry, the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) needs to be turned into a state corporation for a period of 5-7 years and then reorganized into a joint-stock company, Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin said in an interview in Vedomosti published on Monday.

“The state corporation is needed for a maximum of 5-7 years, in order to clean everything up, create several divisions that produce engines, rockets, satellites for near and deep space. Then it should become a joint-stock company and enter the normal market,” Popovkin said.

A state corporation needs to be created in order to whip “the sector into a normal condition that would correspond to corporations such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin,” he said, adding that “changes require a strong concentration of power.”

[…]

“The capacity that existed in the Soviet Union is not needed today. There is a lot of obsolete technology that needs to be gotten rid of. It is also impossible to continue to maintain 242,000 workers with the industry using about 48 percent of capacity. The country can’t feed them. There should be a maximum 150,000-170,000 people working in the sector,” Popovkin said last October.

Critics have attacked the idea, saying it would eliminate any competition within the industry. It’s not clear whether Popovkin’s proposal has advanced. I have not found any more recent references to it in the Russian English-language media.

The level of re-organization and number of staff cutbacks — however necessary they might be — would also be extremely disruptive and painful, even when done over a long period of time. Those changes could seriously affect morale and efficiency. Officials also need to find a way to cycle in replacement workers while making massive cutbacks in employees.

All that could bring additional chaos to a Russian space program that has been beset by numerous launch failures over the past 30 months and is facing increased competition from providers in the United State, China, Europe and India.

Launching spacecraft is about the only task in which the Russian space program leads the world. In addition to meeting the nation’s own needs, the launch sector brings in a lot of foreign currency. Roscosmos could be facing a perfect storm in which frequent launch failures and foreign competition destroy the nation’s competitiveness and remove a major source of income.

To date, many of the launch failures can be traced to one company, Khrunichev, which makes the Proton rocket and several upper stage boosters. However, other launch vehicles such as the Soyuz have also failed during the past 30 months.

This is of no small concern to the United States which, having retired the space shuttle without a working replacement, is completely dependent upon the Russians for crew transportation to the International Space Station. Europe, Canada and Japan are in the same situation.

Given Russia’s recent record of failure and the deep, systemic problems that exist in that nation’s space program, Congress’ annual practice of underfunding NASA’s commercial crew program  should no longer be tolerated. It merely delays the day when we can fly our own astronauts to space on American vehicles while sending hundreds of millions of dollars for crew services to a dysfunctional Russian space program. How is that an effective use of American tax dollars?

The great irony here is that one of Congress’ main concerns with the commercial crew program is safety. And yet, the august body has ignored a growing crisis in Russia, something it has no control over. Why not spend the money NASA is sending over to Russia on our own systems, which is something Congress does have a say in?

It appears the Russian government isn’t the only one to try to accomplish one goal while damaging its efforts on another.

Sources

Roscosmos: several theories of Proton rocket crash under consideration Interfax

Rocket crash may be due to premature engines ignition: space agency Xinhua

Russia Investigates Failed Proton Rocket Launch: RIA Novosti

Russia’s Space Program ‘Ineffective,’ Says Audit Chamber The Moscow Times

Roscosmos fails to be responsible for deadlines, fulfilment of tasks by space systems ITAR-TASS

Roscosmos: Space Agency should be turned into state corporation, then into joint-stock company Interfax

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