Is Russian Space Industry Consolidation Creating a Black Hole?

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks over plans for Vostochny. (Credit: Roscosmos)
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks over plans for Vostochny. (Credit: Roscosmos)

A couple of stories in The Moscow Times provide some insight into the re-nationalization of Russia’s space industry.  One story claims the changes will create a giant black hole that will suck in billions of rubles while producing little of value. The other spotlights the firing of a prominent space analyst who dared oppose the changes.

Pavel Luzin writes that the merging of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and the nation’s space companies under a single government-run corporation has less to do with solving the sector’s many problems than it is designed to consolidate power in the hands of those around President Vladimir Putin.

With the creation of another industry “behemoth,” the size of the overall pie grows smaller, government spending on aerospace gets channeled down a narrower conduit and those who manage to tap into that flow will grow both wealthier and more powerful. The close associates of state defense firm Rostec head Sergei Chemezov are the main beneficiaries of this restructuring, and heading that team is Igor Komarov, the head of URSC and now the head of the new Roscosmos.

In addition, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the defense industry — where Rostec figures prominently — seems to have done a good job promoting the interests of that team in recent years. In other words, the same few people will continue to control the annual allocation of hundreds of billions of rubles of state spending….

The main result of the current reforms is that the space industry will now decide for itself what the state will request from it. The main purpose of the revamped federal space program is not to produce what Russia needs in space, but to churn out whatever the state aerospace corporation itself wants and is able to produce. It now exists only in order to receive government funding.

It thus becomes completely clear why, even after the space industry lost an entire decade with nothing to show for it, the plans for its future activities are made in such a chaotic fashion. Why have those officials suddenly announced plans to create a national space station, and why do they periodically discuss missions to the moon and Mars — both crazy and absolutely infeasible under current conditions — or the creation of a means for protecting Russia from asteroids?

The answer: not in order to actually build them, but to obtain the government funding for them. In fact, the space industry is incapable of developing or building anything new. It has lost its ability to participate in the world market or to provide meaningful cooperation on international technology projects. Now it can do one thing: present bills to the government for ever increasing costs.

Matthew Bodner reports on a prominent Russian space expert says he was fired for publicly opposing the consolidation of the space industry.

Vadim Lukashevich worked at the Skolkovo Innovation Center, a high-tech business park outside Moscow intended as Russia’s answer to Silicon Valley that has partnerships with Western research universities such as MIT.

“As I understand it, they [fired me] for a series of interviews in which I criticize the recent decision to liquidate the Federal Space Agency and create a new state corporation called Roscosmos,” Lukashevich told The Moscow Times on Friday….

Lukashevich, a prominent voice in the Russian space scene, told the BBC the reform would remove any industry accountability and would foster corruption — all while failing to provide Russia with a long-term direction in space.

On Wednesday, a day after the interview was published, he said someone at Skolkovo’s Space Cluster called him to say he had been fired. The caller “apologized several times, saying the decision was imposed on them from above — by a phone call from URSC in the middle of the night,” Lukashevich said.

Skolkovo did not directly respond to Lukashevich’s claim that URSC ordered his dismissal. The center’s press secretary, Alexandra Barshchevskaya, said Lukashevich’s departure had been long-planned, and he had received official notification in October.

Skolkovo is the brainchild of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who developed the idea after a visit to Silicon Valley several years ago. He decided that Russia needed something similar to foster innovation, so he launched a giant government-run initiative to achieve it.