Russians have looked on with growing dismay as their space program, once a close competitor with the Americans, slips in to bankruptcy and insignificance. But the Russians were already falling way behind when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and since then the government has, with increasing frustration, sought to revive Russian space efforts and restore that program to its former fame and glory. The latest major move towards that goal occurred at the end of 2015 when Russia abolished its government federal space agency and transferred all the assets and responsibilities to a new state-owned corporation (called Roscosmos). Over the next two years it became obvious that the problems remained, seemingly beyond solution. To make that failure obvious by the end of 2017 Russia had fallen to third place, behind the Americans and Chinese in space efforts. This was not a surprise because over the last decade Russian space efforts have struggled to meet military space needs, often at the expense of civilian needed. Currently there are only 134 Russian satellites in orbit and 60 percent of them are military. The Russian space efforts have become a money-losing operation sustained mainly for propaganda purposes. But even that backfires. This was demonstrated in February 2018 when Roscosmos officials were asked for their reaction to the recent successful launch of the American SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. The official response was that the SpaceX launch was a “nice trick.” This was in reference to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy using 27 rockets operating in unison to launch very heavy loads into orbit. Also notable was two of the three booster rockets returning and landing (nearly simultaneously) for reuse. This, and many other innovations made SpaceX Falcon Heavy much (by over 70 percent) cheaper than competing American designs (and foreign ones as well). Finally because the first SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch was a test the SpaceX owner used, for a payload, an electric car (a convertible) with a crash test dummy in a space suit in the driver’s seat and the dash board having an iconic “Don’t Panic” sign on it as well as two high tech storage devices with massive data about earth and its inhabitants (in the event that extraterrestrials find the car in the future). Most Russians appreciated the humor in all this and the reality that it meant Roscosmos was in a hopeless position because Roscosmos lacked the cash and talent to operate as effectively as SpaceX. This was an old story for Russians and now even the Chinese had passed them by.
A fundamental problem with the Russian space program was that, unlike in the West and now with China, the Russian efforts were a spinoff from the military program that concentrated on weapons (ICBMs and the like). In the West commercial space operations that generated a lot more activity (launches, R&D, competition and demands for technical and operational efficiency). With the collapse of the Soviet Union there was less money for space operations and better career opportunities elsewhere for the Cold War era Russian space program talent. Russia is keeping up in the design and construction of ICBMs, but even there the loss of all that talent forced to work for the Soviet space program and equipment manufacturing has led to a decline, since the 1990s, in quality for all rockets built. Thus all those embarrassing failures in new Russian ICBMs over the last two decades. Many of the details of the military rocket failures are kept secret. Not so on the commercial side.
Examples of these Russian shortcomings occur regularly. In November 2017 there was another failure by a Russian satellite launcher to get its valuable cargo into orbit. This failure was traced to a software error in the third stage that carried one large weather satellite and 18 tiny cubesats. The control software for the third stage o was programmed for launch from the Balkinor launch facility but the failed launch was from the new Vostochny space center. If fact, this was only second launch from Vostochny, which became operational in 2016. The Russian engineers did not change the flight control software to indicate a launch from Vostochny (in the Russian Far East) rather than the Cold War era Balkinor which, since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, belongs to the new Central Asian state of Kazakhstan. It was a stupid, very expensive and very avoidable mistake. But the quality of engineers and managers that would have prevented that sort of thing no longer want to work for the space program, especially one that is in third place and getting worse.
This mishap was disappointing but not unexpected because Russia saw its defense and space related technology efforts rapidly deteriorate in the 1990s. After 1991 Russia was much smaller and with half the population of the Soviet Union and with a new economic and political system. Skilled technical talent could no longer he kept confined to jobs and neighborhoods determined by the government. After 1991 the “talent” was set free and most, especially the managers, wanted to work anywhere but the state owned (or controlled) defense industries. This should have been anticipated because half the Soviet population left to form new nations (or revive old ones).
Then there was China. Since the 1980s China has set its people free to “get rich” as long as they did not challenge the communist dictatorship that is still in charge. China has not yet been able to produce something like SpaceX but the Chinese space program has, since the 1980s matched and surpassed every the Russians ever did. And China has the kind of economic system and entrepreneurs that could create another SpaceX operation.
The Russian problem was that they did not nurture entrepreneurs like the Chinese did. In 1991 Russians were free to work where they wanted and few of the technically skilled Russians wanted to work for the government anymore. A lot of them left Russia and never returned. At the same time China was attracting talent to its space program by allowing entrepreneurs to create a lot of the technology they needed. Meanwhile the Russians were putting fewer satellites into orbit and a growing number of those launches were failures because the talent to make that happen was no longer around. This loss of talent was felt throughout the Russian defense industries and since the mid-1990s there were growing complaints from military commanders about quality control problems with the new (post-1991) weapons. This was especially true with nuclear submarines, ballistic missiles and aircraft. The problems seemed to be worst, and most embarrassing, in the space program. It was just the opposite in China and this annoyed the Russian government even more. Now the Americans are launching electric cars into orbit at half the price anyone else can do it.
The failure of the Russian space program was not a sudden thing. It took time and it was a painful process. In 1999 a new Russian government came into power and has been trying real hard to fix the problem, with only limited success. For example in mid-2013 the government issued a formal reprimand to the director (Vladimir Popovkin) of the Russian Space Agency (RSA), which handles all of Russia’s satellite launches. The government later clarified that the reprimand was not for several recent disasters but for the fact that since 2010 the RSA has only been able to launch 47 percent of Russian satellites. The reprimand, which in Russia is usually the last warning for someone about to be dismissed, was about the continued inefficiency of the RSA and the inability of Popovkin to reform and revitalize the RSA.
This failure was worse than it appeared. Vladimir Popovkin took over RSA in March 2011. Eleven months later he was hospitalized for exhaustion. There were rumors that he had been worn down by his many subordinates working against the new anti-corruption measures. He was out of the hospital in twelve days and denied the many rumors (like the corruption struggle) swirling about him. Vladimir Popovkin should have been an ideal candidate for the RSA job, as he was a career army officer and scientist who rose to command the Russian Space Forces and several other military operations dealing with large rockets and space operations. Popovkin held on his job despite continued problems because he was qualified to do the job and encountered a lot of problems with corruption and decades of bad management. Russian politicians and state controlled media, both heavily involved in corrupt activities, were not eager to make a big deal of how corruption was crippling the RSA. What Popovkin also had to deal with was a chronic shortage to competent and reliable technical people. Not matter how talented and capable Popovkin it was not enough to turn the space program around.
The problems were frequent and expensive. In 2010 there was the inability to put expensive mapping satellites into orbit. In one case a flawed launch attempt left the Russian GEO-IK-2 earth mapping satellite in a useless (too low) orbit for 17 months until it entered the atmosphere and the 1.4 ton satellite completely burned up. The GEO-IK-2 was designed to measure the shape of the earth and monitor planetary movement (land, tides, ice). The satellite also had a military use, to measure the planet's gravitational field, which helps make missile guidance systems (and commercial ones) more accurate and reliable. Launched on February 1st, 2011, the GEO-IK-2 satellite reached low orbit but the third stage of the rocket failed to turn on its rockets to put the satellite into its final (higher) orbit. The day after this happened Russian ground controllers restored contact with the GEO-IK-2. Ground control had lost contact with the GEO-IK-2 satellite shortly after launch and the satellite was initially believed to be a total loss. Controllers were not able to get GEO-IK-2 into a better orbit and functioning reliably, making this the second major satellite loss in three months for Russia.
There were repercussions. A month before GEO-IK-2 burned up on reentry, Russia fired two senior managers of the RSA, plus some lesser managers, because of the December, 2010 loss of three navigation satellites. That incident involved a Proton satellite launcher that failed due to poor management and supervision. It was a stupid mistake. The rocket malfunctioned and caused the satellites to crash into the Pacific. The Proton rocket had been fueled incorrectly, causing the imbalance and failure to achieve orbit. This was poor management at its most obvious.
The prompt dismissal of so many senior managers was actually pretty typical. Russia has a long tradition of the "vertical chop," where several senior leaders in the same chain of command are dismissed (or even executed, at least in the old days) when there was a screw up in their area of responsibility. This approach has fallen out of favor in the West, where the tendency is to fire as few people as possible when there is a major failure. After September 11, 2001, for example, no one got fired. In Russia the vertical chop was never a magic bullet because even during the Soviet period corruption was a big problem and a major reason for the 1991 collapse.
Because of this Soviet legacy, Russian satellite launchers have never been the most flawless, but they got the job done. Including the partial failures, the Proton has about a ten percent failure rate. However, the Russian launchers, and Russian launch facilities, are cheaper than those in the West and nearly as reliable. But the higher failure rate of the Proton rocket causes some concern among potential customers. Nevertheless, the Proton is so cheap that you can afford to pay more for insurance. And there is some comfort in knowing that the RSA suits put their jobs on the line every time one of those rockets is launched.
The repercussions continued in the wake of all the sloppy decisions and stupid mistakes that have led to the loss of launchers and satellites. Another shake up of the space effort was expected if the government could find someone more qualified than Vladimir Popovkin to do the deed. Senior government officials knew that Popovkin was not the problem and that the corrupt environment he had to work in was. Cleaning that up means cleaning up the corruption throughout Russian society. That requires more than the vertical chop, it takes time and persistence. In 2013 Russian space efforts were reorganized once more and Roscosmos was created. This rearranged management but did not solve any of the underlying problems.
Another problem Russia has was where to launch its satellites from. On April 28th 2016 Russia carried out its first satellite launch at its new Vostochny space center (Cosmodrome). A Soyuz rocket put three civilian satellite into orbit. This Cosmodrome is in the Russian Far East (Amur Province, just north of Manchuria), unlike the Soviet era site in what is now the independent state of Kazakhstan. Construction of the Amur site began in 2010 as Russia realized Kazakhstan was becoming a very difficult landlord. Construction of Vostochny moved quickly in part because the site used to be Svobodny 18, an ICBM base that was shut down in 1993 as part of the START disarmament treaty. Amur Province was ultimately selected because of weather (it averaged only 50-60 overcast days a year, had a dry climate and calm winds) and the absence of earthquakes. Everything went according to schedule as first launches were planned to begin in 2016. This was made possible by the government acting quickly when signs of corruption periodically surfaced. Three construction executives were arrested for corruption and many others threatened. Construction is still going on, mainly to build equipment and facilities for handling heavier cargoes, including supplies and components for space stations. This worked for the completion of Vostochny but not for the rockets and satellites that were sent to Vostochny to be put into orbit.
Military launches will largely remain at Plesetsk, near the Arctic Circle. While Plesetsk's location is good for some types of launches (high inclination, polar, and highly elliptical orbits), the place is frozen most of the year and more expensive to operate because of the climate.
Meanwhile Baikonur has not been abandoned, In 2013 Russia agreed to remain in Baikonur after the Kazakh government agreed to reduce its demands for higher rent. Russia had threatened to cut launches at Balkinor from 75 percent of the Russian total to ten percent by the end of the decade. Kazakhstan originally demanded a lot more money and threatened to shut down Balkinor if the Russians did not pay. In 2012 Russia paid Kazakhstan $115 million a year for the use of Balkinor, in addition to the $50 million a year spent to maintain the facility. Many Kazakhs saw Balkinor as an ATM and anytime there was a cash shortage, they could make a withdrawal and the Russians would be forced to pay. The Russians convinced the Kazakhs that plans to leave Balkinor were real. It was pointed out that Balkinor where the commercial satellites were launched and Russia sold these “launch services” to a growing list of foreign customers. If Russia paid the higher fees the Kazakhs were demanding the foreign customers would have to pay more than other competitors charged and Russia would have to abandon Balkinor as uneconomical.
Russia had already moved all military launches to the smaller space center at Plesetsk. Russia can turn Baikonur into a big cash cow via commercial launches but the Kazakhs were finally convinced about this when construction of Vostochny began and moved ahead with unusual speed and agreed to more reasonable rent and, for the moment, Russia's largest satellite launch site was still in Kazakhstan. With Vostochny now operational the Kazakhs have to pay more attention to being a good landlord. But with a failing space program Russia is unlikely to generate enough business to make all those launch centers profitable. This is a sad end to a space program that, in the 1950s, was actually first in many areas. By the 1960s the Americans had moved ahead and the Russians tried but never could pose a serious threat.