Big Changes Ahead for the Russia Space Program in 2014

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

For Roscosmos boss Vladimir Popovkin, the first half of 2013 was a welcome respite in an otherwise difficult tenure. A series of launch vehicles — 15 of them in all — lifted off flawlessly from the Baikonur and Plesetsk cosmodromes. All their payloads reached their intended orbits, exactly as planned. As summer dawned, it looked as though the Russian space program had finally put a string of embarrassing launch failures behind it.

Then came July. And everything changed.

On July 2, the 385th launch of a Proton rocket looked completely normal — at least at first. The massive rocket lifted off the pad at Baikonur on a column of flames and soared skyward. But, only seconds into the flight, the Proton wobbled to one side, and then the other, before arching over and heading back to Earth.

First, the payload shroud was torn loose, taking three GLONASS navigational satellites with it. Then the bottom of the rocket caught fire, the flames spreading in seconds to the rest of the booster. The flaming wreck slammed into the ground in a massive explosion that could be seen and felt for kilometers around.

As hazmat teams cleaned up the toxic mess on the ground, Russian investigators soon discovered the cause of the accident: a technician at rocket builder Khrunichev had installed three control sensor upside down. As the Proton soared skyward, it couldn’t get its bearings. While space officials took steps to ensure such a mistake wouldn’t be repeated, Russia’s politicians acted quickly to shake up  the space industry.

Three months after the accident, Popovkin was out of a job. His replacement as head of Roscosmos was Deputy Defense Minister Oleg Ostapenko, who became the space agency’s third leader in only 2.5 years.

Officials also named Igor Komarov, the head of Russia’s largest automaker, as Ostapenko’s deputy. Komarov’s job in 2014 is to establish the new Unified Rocket and Space Corporation, a company that will consolidate much of Russia’s sprawling and bloated space industry under its management. Roscosmos will be relegated to contracting, coordination and policy implementation.

The consolidation will absorb 33 space organizations, including 16 enterprises. The main focus will be on subcontractors and suppliers. Major companies such as Energia and Khrunichev will not be included under the new umbrella company.

The change is likely to eliminate tens of thousands of jobs in the Russian space sector, which employs approximately 250,000 people but operates at only about 40 percent efficiency.  By contrast, the U.S. space sector employs about 70,000 and is about 8 more efficient than its Russian counterpart.

It’s a bold plan that is either crazy or crazy brilliant. Will the consolidation improve quality control and bring much needed efficiencies to the bloated space sector? Or will it eliminate competition and destroy any chance the Russian space industry has to compete internationally? How much chaos and confusion will be created by such a massive consolidation? And what impacts will it have on quality in the near and long terms?

Nobody yet knows. Much will depend upon what steps Komarov takes in the year ahead. The Russian space industry is set for a massive transformation. And it begins in 2014.