May 1, 2012: Last year a major Russian space mission (to Mars) failed and the government ordered a thorough investigation. At the time president Medvedev threatened criminal prosecutions of Russian Space Agency officials if they were found at fault. In the previous year several senior officials of the Space Agency had been dismissed in response to failures of launchers, space vehicles, or satellites. The latest embarrassment was an expensive interplanetary probe that failed after launch and ended up in a useless orbit, rather than on its way to Mars. Such dismissals of senior officials are an ancient Russian custom. In the past the official would be sent to a prison camp or executed, but these days losing your well-paid job is punishment enough to encourage other officials.
The investigation of the Mars probe failure confirmed that the problem was the same as with earlier failures. Basically, officials running technical government operations have not been able to get enough qualified people. Over the last two decades many of the most talented technical and managerial people have emigrated or have higher paid jobs in the civilian sector.
Some Russian officials pointed out that this sort of thing didn’t happen during the Soviet period, when there were many layers of managers assigned to ensure quality control. During the Soviet period being responsible for a space mission failure was a criminal offense. Back then there was no shortage of qualified people for this work, as the government could order qualified people to work for the space operation or else.
This enthusiasm for the good old Soviet days quickly died when it was pointed out (quietly, in some cases, so as not to cause political problems) that the Soviet Union was basically a slave state, where everyone was under the control of the unelected government. No one could leave the Soviet Union, take a job, or even move to a different part of the country without permission from a government official. While some Russians are nostalgic for this sort of thing, most are not. If that means that the Russian Space Program cannot perform, than solutions other than the reintroduction of state control of the population will have to be found. Meanwhile, there is growing unrest in Russia by people who believe the current government is trying to return to the strict controls of the Soviet period but calling it "controlled democracy" rather than a dictatorship.