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Russian space industry crisis in focus on Cosmonautics Day

April 12, 2012, 17:12 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

Russia is celebrating Cosmonautics Day. Alongside the nostalgic memories of the first manned spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961 many recall the systemic crisis of the Russian space industry, of which a long string of latest failures is evidence.

Rockets fall, industrial plants are about to breathe their last, skilled specialists are scarce. On the list of the main problems experts mention a shortage of experienced personnel, the aging of fixed assets, lack of new ideas and products, low utilization rate of the industry’s enterprises (about 30%), and poor quality of the manufactured components. As a matter of fact, Russia has turned itself into a space taxicab driver, which uses the Soviet Union-designed rockets to put in orbit advanced spacecraft of foreign manufacture.

In the meantime, the industry’s financing is soaring. This year 150 billion rubles is to be injected into the space industry, next year this spending article will be up to 175 billion rubles, and in 2014, 200 billion rubles.

However, the financial muscle has brought about no tangible success yet. On the contrary, last year alone the Russian space agency lost one cargo spacecraft Progress and three satellites.

Russia’s first inter-planetary space probe Fobos-Grunt, expected to bring to the Earth samples from Mar’s satellite, was launched in November 2011. The probe failed to enter the expected trajectory, and on January 15 its debris fell into the Pacific Ocean.

After that fiasco the leadership of Roscosmos lost much of its enthusiasm about inter-planetary research. The head of Roscosmos, Vladimir Popovkin, warned against dragging the economy into a “new space race”, because the previous one, he said, caused the USSR first go broke and eventually to break up. “We tried to be the first once,” he said. “The space shuttle Buran and star wars contributed to a situation that caused the country to disappear. Are we going to see something like that again?”

The failure of the Martian mission, which devoured fifteen years and nearly five billion rubles, however, has not made Russians give up the hope of reaching the Red Planet, though. As space industry officials said just recently, the project will be repeated. However, after a training mission to the Moon. The intention to focus the Russian space industry on the Moon was declared shortly after the Phobos failure, and there is a special clause to this effect in the draft Strategy of the Space Activity up to 2030.

In part, the document envisages “demonstrative manned flight around the Moon and the eventual landing of cosmonauts on its surface and the crew’s return to the Earth.” Roscosmos does not look even a little bit shy at the thought this is going to happen 45 years after the Americans’ landing on the Moon.

Also, the strategy contains plans for the exploration of the Venus and Jupiter. With the help of foreign partners Roscosmos plans to deploy a network of long-term research stations on Mars. The International Space Station ISS is scheduled to be eliminated by 2020.

After the failure of Phobos-Grunt Roscosmos decided to axe sixteen of the earlier approved programs, including projects for exploring some planets of the Solar system.

Manned exploration of outer space is a task of more distant future, says Russian Academy of Sciences member Yuri Semyonov, the head of the space rocket corporation Energiya in 1989-2006. Semyonov told the daily Izvestia in an interview the intention to explore the Moon or Mars should not be given up by no means. But for implementing such ambitious plans an orbital complex is to be created first and spacecraft assembled there. This may ease the risk of losing spacecraft. “If we had chosen that way, the Phobos failure would not have happened,” Semyonov said with certainty.

“What is the reason of the critical position of the space industry?” experts keep asking. “Chronic and gross under-financing in the 1990s caused top class specialists to seek fortune elsewhere. In fact, the industry is no more,” the chief of theGagarin Research and Development Center for the Training of Cosmonauts, Sergei Krikalyov, told the online periodical Free Press in an interview. “Back at the end of last century specialists warned that the Russian space industry would last no more than three-five years before eventual collapse. We have managed to retain our potential for ten years, in some fields, even for fifteen years. No more miracles.”

“These days we see a well-expected recession. We are faced with the lack of well-drafted projects, which should have been launched many years ago, precisely when there was a shortage of financing.”

Today money has started pouring in. Wages for those involved in military programs have gone up, but civilian programs have been left unchanged. People do the same type of work, but they get paid differently.

“The average wage that I can promise job applicants is about 20,000 rubles (an equivalent of 700 dollars),” Krikalyov said. “As a result nobody is eager to come to take such jobs. Those who do come stay for a couple of years to gain experience and to leave elsewhere. Personnel drifting is appalling.”


MOSCOW, April 12