- Let's not beat around the bush. Whose advice can you rely on while Ivan Safronov is languishing in jail?
In my group of advisers there are some two dozen people. It's a cohort of top-notch specialists in different fields of knowledge, who help me exercise personal control of different activities by Roscosmos’ divisions. There are engineers, designers, lawyers, economists and IT experts…
- Was the loss sensitive for the team?
- Of course. Roscosmos' head office was stunned when everybody heard the news on TV about Safronov's arrest…
- Are you saying that you had not received any prior warning; that you heard about it on the news?
- Yes, like everybody else on our staff.
- What was your immediate reaction?
Surprise. Any person who is hired by a public corporation, even to fill a position not involving access to classified information, undergoes a security clearance. We have a special unit - several departments responsible for security, and the protection of state secrets and economic security. They are professionals, including career security service officers. I'd presumed that such filters were effective enough.
- What type of security clearance did Safronov have?
- He had no access to any secrets. Нis chief task was to keep in touch with his colleagues in the media business, with the professional community. Ivan was hired to perform this kind of work.
He was given a position in the press service as my adviser and obtained no special security clearance. But let me say once again that all of the CEO's close contacts are checked first thing. Then a report is presented to me that there are no arguments against employment.
- Have you known each other for a long time?
- According to my recollection, since 2012. I joined the government as a deputy prime minister in December 2011. At first, there were some rifts and grudges…
- On whose side?
What makes you think I may have something against a journalist?
- Different types of situations can occur.
- Yes, some particularly touchy officials never miss a chance to crack down on the media, but such attempts always look strange. You know that my first major is in international journalism, right? I’m in this line of business myself. Many of the guys who were my university buddies have won acclaim as excellent professionals. Say, Alexei Denisov, a great reporter. Andrei Martynov, Dmitry Sabov, and Boris Kostenko, I have deep respect for the journalistic community, where there are many inquisitive and bold people, some of them with frontline experience. I chanced to be at some trouble spots myself where I could see reporters in action.
- Would you please finish that phrase about rifts and grudges…
- In 2012, Kommersant daily, where Safronov worked at that moment, published several articles under his name that were somewhat critical of me.
At a certain point, I got curious. I presumed that the man might have been misled and did not understand certain things. I'd never thought that Safronov might harbor any malicious designs or had been given instructions to discredit me. I invited him to a meeting. He came to my office and we shook hands.
- Who introduced you to each other?
- It so happened that Vladimir Popovkin, the then chief of the Federal Space Agency and a subordinate of mine, was Ivan's close acquaintance. They were on very close terms, almost relatives.
We met and had a chat. After that a certain distance in relations remained, but nevertheless, I've always recognized Safronov as a professional.
- Did the tone of his articles change afterwards?
- Not in an instant, but after sometime. Then there was a tragedy. Vladimir Popovkin suffered serious chemical poisoning at the Baikonur space site in July 2013, when a Proton rocket fell apart at the launch pad. It was a major high-profile accident. Vladimir developed a grave, lethal disease.
Very soon he resigned. About one month before his death we met and Popovkin asked me to help Ivan. He told me: "He is still a very young man. He lacks experience and quite often he may ask for trouble. Look after him, please." It was the will of a dying man. I've always remembered his request.
Safronov is a well-informed journalist. He had excellent sources. Incidentally, he never shared them with anybody. [He] never disclosed the names of people who shared information with him. Several times I had contacted Ivan through my press-secretary to advise him against certain publications that might have been potentially harmful. There was very sensitive information involved, although it was not secret.
- Did he ask you for advice or for double-checked information?
- Ivan listened to us, and to other specialists, too. In contrast to many colleagues who write about such sensitive issues as the country's defense, he always behaved himself, although I think that some officials often found his articles annoying. On the very first day after his arrest I said that I have no doubts about Safronov's decency and professionalism.
- Ivan's colleagues just recently held a campaign of collecting signatures in his support. Some say they asked you to sign the petition, too.
- No. Nobody asked me for that.
- And what if they did?
- I would ponder about whether this sort of support might have any possibilities to succeed, although frankly speaking I doubt it would be of any use.
- Why? The man has been at the Lefortovo detention center for several months now. No word in his support would be redundant… Have you had any personal contacts with Ivan during this period of time?
- No, but our lawyers keep in touch with Safronov's.
- Were the lawyers hired by Roscosmos?
- We considered the possibility of protecting the interests of the organization. From the very outset there were statements that his arrest was not connected with Safronov's activity in Roscosmos, so we had no reasons to regard ourselves as a party to this case.
I feel great respect for counter-intelligence and foreign intelligence. In my family there are people who served in this system - special service veterans. My father-in-law was an officer at the Soviet KGB’s First Main Directorate Focusing on American Policy. A man of honor.
I'm personally acquainted with many of our intelligence and counter-intelligence officers, because I chaired the State Duma's international affairs committee, I served as ambassador to NATO, and I had contacts with our station chiefs whose job was to maintain the operation of the intelligence community. In a word, I'm very familiar with the specifics of this work and I've never had any reasons to distrust their information. On the other hand, there is the presumption of innocence. As long as there is no sufficient evidence to the contrary, I believe that Ivan Safronov is fully entitled to the protection of honor, dignity and freedom, of course.
- Is this the reason why he still remains your adviser?
- Precisely. And he will remain in his current position until the court's verdict is handed down. I do hope for his acquittal.
True, in the history of our intelligence there were cases of betrayal by people who had been trusted 100%. Everything is possible in this world. There is no immunity against treason. But in his particular case, let me say this once again, I have no reasons to change my opinion of Ivan Safronov, whom I've known for many years as a decent person and a professional journalist. I do not believe that he [committed] treason, I although I foresee a possibility that the investigation may prove otherwise. Then we will draw certain conclusions, including some regarding the people whose job is to timely and correctly inform the corporation's management about those who apply for a job.
- But this is not the first case during your career at Roscosmos of a company employee being charged with high treason, is it?
- No, we had no such incidents. At TsNIIMash, our leading research center, one of its scientists, Viktor Kudryavtsev, was arrested shortly after I joined the company. Incidentally, the research institute's staff put in a word for him, too.
- The investigation has now been put on hold.
- I'll try to explain to you what the problem is… At a meeting with the institute's personnel I was asked a question about Kudryavtsev. I said honestly that I'd long been worried by the problem of how the performance of our scientists was rated, in particular, the so-called Hirsch Index. Our specialists are obliged to prove their professionalism and efficiency with the number of publications in "authoritative scientific periodicals" in the West.
Any specialist who conducts sensitive research in fact walks a tightrope and the runs the risk of getting into hot water while trying to demonstrate the value of his achievements. When I was Russia's envoy to NATO in Brussels, I had many chances to see in the alliance's magazines some articles by our scientists that I found very undesirable. For the sake of an extra publication that helps earn a higher Hirsch rating some people blabbed out certain things they should've kept quiet about.
There are very clear yardsticks. Classification markings are often attached to pieces of information that are already available from open sources. Individual facts do not constitute a secret, but the results of their analysis may be a secret that enables foreign secret services draw certain conclusions.
For instance, we have our sector-oriented magazine Russky Kosmos, which contains many professional publications of great interest, including some that address purely engineering issues. Before each new edition is authorized for print, a special panel convenes to check if it contains information that is classified secret or meant for official use only. Then yours truly as the company's CEO signs a special paper - my consent with the experts' opinion the periodical does not contain any sensitive information.
- Do you have to reject articles often?
- I do this regularly. I trust my specialists and their opinion. There should be no place for risk in such matters.
- Let’s wrap up the topic of transgressions. You were the one who initiated the Audit Chamber's inspection of the space rocket corporation Energia in 2018. Why did you set your sights on this corporation from the get-go?
- When I still held the deputy prime minister's post, I kept asking myself why Energia never managed to accomplish any serious job on time. Say, the development of a new generation of crewed spacecraft. It was scheduled to fly in 2021. That was the deadline. When in 2017 it became clear that the flight would not take place as expected, somebody sparked a rumor that for some technical reasons, the spacecraft must be paired with a different launch vehicle. In fact, they had failed to meet the deadline or otherwise messed up the task and preferred to address a new proposal to their superiors. The decision-makers gave it the go-ahead without proper scrutiny. In the end, the deadlines were revised again. We've now restored order and are obliged to carry out the launch in 2023. Had the Energia corporation observed financial discipline and arranged its own work better, the flight might have become possible much earlier.
- In other words, it was you who sent the ex-chief of the Energia corporation Solntsev to jail?
- Criminal proceedings were initiated on the basis of an inspection carried out by Roscosmos' internal auditing service. I created it myself and invited the most experienced people from the prosecutor's office into it. The service's findings resulted in the opening of 22 criminal cases over two years.
Inspections are launched at my sole discretion. The results are reported to me personally. Then I make a decision whether to hand the case over to the law enforcement authorities. In this particular situation, I found the reasons to do so were serious enough.
- Is it realistic to hope some of the losses can be recovered?
- The Vostochny spaceport is an example. Some losses can be compensated for, but only to an extent. Very serious charges were brought against Yuri Khrizman, the former chief of the Dalspetsstroi contractor, and his son. The losses are estimated at nearly one billion rubles. Only a portion is recoverable.
- What does the internal auditing service look like?
- Let me explain. Before I took over Roscosmos there was a department that was entirely focused on accounting. I reorganized it to considerably expand its functions. The quality of work improved. Some high-profile cases were exposed. Charges were brought against the Lavochkin research and industrial association, Tekhnomash, the research and testing center of the space rocket industry RKP, the Progress Rocket Space Center in Samara, the Geofizkia central design bureau in Krasnoyarsk… The same applies to the Energia space rocket corporation. Regrettably, in this industry, a situation emerged where a handful of people could use mammoth funds without any supervision. A manager's personal honesty had to be relied on. This is not the most reliable yardstick of all.
- Will there be more cases?
- Of course. Some probes are underway. Everybody should remember my zero tolerance of theft and corruption. I've always said that this is a far more dangerous ill than the NATO or US military threat. Roscosmos is responsible for the creation of combat missiles and produces the hardware of the country's strategic nuclear potential. This means that thieves in fact harm the country's defenses. This is an act of betrayal and treason. I find this far more worrisome than publications in magazines or technical information leaks to the West.
We will push ahead with our crusade against corruption. Far from everybody is happy about my standpoint. This explains the hostile campaign in both official mass media and anonymous Telegram channels. The flow of calumnies is heavy, but I no longer read the stuff, because I've realized why all this is happening and who is the mastermind. The harder the line I take to restore order to the industry, the louder the irresponsible noises in the mass media become. It’s a smear campaign against me.
My military specialization in university was special propaganda. I know that discrediting a leader is one of the most important methods of achieving victory by non-military means. There have been attempts to stop me, but in my case they do not work. Firstly, I am man of character and, secondly, my political experience does not let me react to such dirty tricks.
Nevertheless, the decisions and measures we take are to be explained to society. It would be wrong to remain idle onlookers.
- How large is the internal auditing department?
- Twelve people. This is not very much. It is their skills and competence that really matters.
- What was the condition of Roscosmos when you took over in 2018?
- I'd thought that the company was doing much better. I had had some hopes. Some illusions.
- But wasn't it you whose duty it was to oversee the industry?
- This sounds a little bit far-fetched.
As a deputy prime minister, I had several aides in my secretariat, including one responsible for Roscosmos. Also, I was a member of the defense industry board. What can the government know about what is afoot in the industry at a time when only one or two persons, however competent, are responsible for this? The bottleneck is too narrow. Only part of the relevant information gets through.
There were some things I was totally unaware of. Still worse, I had no powers to appoint those people whom I deemed necessary. What did this lead to? The government's direct instructions were ignored and swept under the carpet.
- Have you fundamentally reshuffled the corporation's management?
- Yes, I had to instantly replace nearly all those in charge of capital construction. Disruptions of a number of crucial investment programs were exposed. Also, the financial and economic divisions and units responsible for the quality of hardware and for strategic research were reinforced.
- The capital construction branch was responsible mostly for Vostochny, right?
Not only. I’m referring to some other facilities crucial to testing space rocket technologies. We unearthed fake banking guarantees and a money laundering firm.
- Could you disclose the details?
- No, because there are military aspects involved. I reported the problem to President Vladimir Putin personally.
To make the long story short, we replaced all these people.
I reorganized the system of quality checks. In fact, I brought back General Alexander Lopatin. Now he is my deputy in charge of rocket engineering. In 2013, he declared himself responsible for the Proton rocket's failure, although he was not directly to blame for it. This shows he is a man of honor. I have no doubts about this man. It was General Lopatin who has fine-tuned the system for checking the quality and reliability of space rocket equipment.
As a matter of fact, out of the eight deputy chiefs only three members of the old Roscosmos team have retained their posts. Only 20%-30% of executive managers have stayed on. Many are gone. I feel no regrets about this, because those people either displayed no special qualities at all or mostly tried to line their own pockets, quite often at the government's expense.
- Do you find it easy to fire people?
It is always hard to let a good specialist go. As for those good-for-nothings and backstabbers, I never hesitate to ask them to bow out. Occasionally, I even feel like giving them a kick so that they should not hang around for too long.
- Can you do that really?
I try to control myself. I'm six feet four and weigh over 100 kilograms. I was a master of sport once. Even if give somebody a flick, it will hurt. They say that a hippopotamus has poor vision, but this a problem for those around - not the hippopotamus …
Seriously speaking, my father brought me up in a different way. He explained to me that a word pronounced quietly is capable of producing a far greater effect than yelling or banging your fists on the table. I tried hard to avoid raising my voice, but at certain moments, during an argument I might get overly emotional only to hear my father's critical remark. He is my greatest authority and teacher in life.
We'll talk about your father a little bit later. Could you please comment on the verdict pronounced by the Ministry of Finance that Roscosmos uses budget money inefficiently. By mid-August 2020, the corporation had spent only 35% of the money earmarked for this year. In 2019, the rate on the same date was 81%.
In this way, the Ministry of Finance responded to my statement Roscosmos is strongly against further sequestration of the industry's funding. We are told: "You don't spend the money you get anyway." This is not quite so. There exist certain disagreements over the methods of counting and calculating financial implementations. I won't go into details now. Just recently, I met with Anton Siluanov and suggested our subordinates should stop taking digs at each other in public, because, first, it is not ethical, and, what is still more important, ineffective. I am certain that we understood each other.
There is such a term as loss of relevance. We can see the trends in the world space industry well enough. Some plans and ideas from several years ago may have become obsolete. Research and development do not necessarily result in the creation of a prototype. Real life is different from the way the economists and financiers see it. In the process of production, let alone amid the fiercest competition on the world space market, we often realize that the decisions our predecessors had made as the only correct ones in reality lead to a dead end. It is far better to stop pumping funds into this work and to use the resources for more promising tasks. The financiers and economists sitting in government ministries dislike this. For them it's nothing but extra work and another reason for grumbling.
We work really hard to ensure that all of our products are orbited and go operational. This is obvious. Just like making the quality better. For instance, in 2019 the industry had not had a single major accident for the first time in 16 years. Is there anything to argue about? In some years, there had been as many as five emergencies. Now the situation is different. President Putin took note of that after hearing a report on April 10 on the eve of International Day of Human Space Flight. True, our progress is not as fast as we would like it to be, but it is undeniable.
- Hasn't the president said more than once that there’s no time for warming up?
- Listen, it is a giant industry - nearly 200,000 people. It is impossible to change everything in just one year. I said: "Let me work calmly and in several years' time we will achieve a totally different result."
- Have they let you work calmly?
- If we really wish to see Russia retain its leadership in space, we will need a real revolution in science and engineering. The safety margin we've inherited from the Soviet era is totally exhausted. So far, we've been going downhill, enjoying the benefits of what was created by our fathers and grandfathers - the great founders of the Soviet space industry. Now this resource is gone.
The technological base needs a fundamental upgrade. This explains why the Vostochny spaceport is so important. As a matter of fact, it is a center of attraction, the most advanced spaceport from the standpoint of smart engineering solutions. This spaceport will enable us to launch rockets of any type: from light ones to those that are super-heavy.
Second. We are to achieve a transition to cardinally new space rocket hardware. The engineering solutions inherited from the past are hopelessly obsolete. The focus is not on upgrade. No idea, not even one authored by a genius, can be used infinitely. Any improvement has its limit. The electric bulb was not an upgraded candle. It was a fundamentally different technological solution.
Whole industries will have to be reorganized and the very approach to building a new space transport system will have to be reconsidered.
We are pinning great hopes on launch vehicles based on new principles of operation. We’ve started creating methane-fueled engines and a rocket in the most required medium class, which is destined to replace Sergey Korolyov’s legendary R7 (Soyuz-2). The new rocket is called Amur. It will be genuinely reusable. A contract for its development has been signed. This piece of hardware is going to be even more reliable and economically effective, and consequently, competitive.
Third. The industry should be consolidated and redundancies eliminated. As a matter of fact, it is about eliminating sovereign principalities, in which each CEO of a research and industrial center felt like an unchallenged and unrivaled ruler. This resulted in the disappearance of unified centers of competence common for the whole industry, and - as a consequence – this made us lag behind our competitors on the world market.
- What's the fate of the unified state program that the government is supposed to approve?
- It's like this. A couple of years ago I realized that it is a vital need. Look. We have the state program titled Russia's Space Activity, the federal space program, the federal program GLONASS and the federal program for building the Vostochny spaceport… The list can be extended further on. All these projects are not coordinated from the standpoint of deadlines and in no way linked with the creation of industries crucial to their implementation. Why is it so?
- People spend the budget money to the best of their skills and knowledge.
- Yes, it has really been like this all along by and large. As a result, the industry was sustaining losses. Ineffective production entailed huge overheads. By the end of this year, we will demonstrate a unified state program. I've coordinated it with the president. It will be built on totally new principles. Everything will be described in detail for years ahead.
- What's the program's estimated timespan?
- The first one is extended over ten years, up to 2030, but it will be revised and renewed every five years. You see? In 2026, a program extending till 2035 will commence. We use a long planning horizon, which is convenient for all participants in the process - from science and manufacturing to contract services, which draft financial and calculation documents.
- What's the program's estimated value?
- It is yet to be approved. In the wake of the debate with the Ministry of Finance that has already been mentioned I believe that there is only one person in the country capable of confirming this final figure.
- Have you formulated it yourself?
- Of course. We have a clear understanding. We are ready to be responsible for each ruble to be spent, but I will avoid mentioning the sum to you, because it is a subject matter of complex discussions over what is possible and what is necessary.
There are many components: investment projects, the navigation system GLONASS, further investment in the Vostochny spaceport’s infrastructure systems, and the creation of the Yenisei super-heavy rocket for deep space exploration. Developing and testing it will cost a lot. Nearly one trillion rubles. It will be fifteen times more powerful than the medium class rocket of the Soyuz-2 type, but it will need its own launch pad, to be built when the Vostochny spaceport project enters the third phase.
- When is the Yenisei rocket scheduled to blast off?
- In 2028. In accordance with the presidential decree.
In a word, this is a huge program. It will be submitted to the government and considered comprehensively. Naturally, the financiers and economists will say: "No money for you." Go and raise it yourself.
- As a matter of fact, you've been already told as much.
- When I took over the industry, the just-adopted federal space program began to be slashed, although the president said we cannot afford to go any lower, because degradation would follow. Nevertheless, the sequestration continued… What is 50 billion a year? It's an equivalent of launch vehicles and satellites that might have been put in space to provide communication and Internet connections across the nation, space probes that might have been launched towards Venus and Mars, and many other things.
We have three guidelines: Firstly, unconditional and impeccable security and defense capabilities and a strategic nuclear potential for the armed forces, along with strategic ballistic missiles and the orbital cluster at the Defense Ministry's disposal. We do that.
Secondly, socio-economic programs: Better quality of life in a vast country stretched out across many time zones. How can communication be maintained in it? Optical fiber lines are not a way out, aren't they? Only via space. The Internet, digital TV signals, remote sensing of the Earth, GLONASS and many other things.
Also, the orbital cluster and the space data processing system on the ground make it possible to cope with no end of extremely important tasks, from controlling infrastructures including transport safety, roads, bridges, dams and gas pipelines and the state of affairs in such fields as ecology, the protection of forests from wildfires and illegal logging, bolstering the regions' tax base by means of exposing unregistered property items and control of strategically important construction sites.
It is impossible to lay Internet and communication cables on flying planes or icebreakers or ocean-going liners. Only space satellites are capable of coping with this task. Not to mention unmanned aerial vehicles, which can be controlled only through space navigation and communication.
From time to time, Russia witnesses major ecological accidents. Take the recent water pollution on the Taimyr Peninsula or the latest emergency on the Kamchatka Peninsula, or river floods in Siberia and the Far East. Is it normal for the local authorities to learn about these events from Telegram channels and social networks? If they do nothing to create and develop space data processing centers that make it possible to monitor the situation on line, the governors will be doomed to dealing with the tragic consequence of such disasters without having an opportunity to provide an instant response.
The third guideline is science. What do we have left after budget sequestration? Last year, we successfully put in space a unique space observatory Spektr-RG, which sends to us images of the starry sky. It operates at a distance of half a million kilometers away from the Earth, at a Lagrange point. This is quite an achievement, but it is not enough.
- And still you've postponed the launch of the Spektr-UF until 2025.
- We could've launched it earlier. We have almost everything ready to put the apparatus together. We have the scientific and engineering solutions. But there is no money.
I'm well aware of what is happening in the country. I was a government member myself once. Healthcare, education and construction need funding… Now this COVID-19 pandemic has intervened. I know well and do understand Finance Minister Anton Siluanov's stance. He supports the development of space activity, but he is forced to take complex decision. Space is neither loss-making nor redundant. Our technologies create a new reality for the country and a new quality of life for its citizens.
Each job in the space industry automatically produces nine in related sectors. This explains why amid the crisis, support for system-forming industries should be stepped up, and not curtailed.
Roscomos' budget is a tiny one-twelfth of NASA's. I'm told: "You must remain the frontrunner." But they don't explain how to go about this business, though.
At the same time, I see colossal resources for enhancing the industry's effectiveness. We are prepared to carry out what some might describe as technological fitness, to streamline industries that may be not very effective, to reduce them and to put the emphasis on production where advanced equipment exists. One solution does not rule out others: proper financing is crucial; the reforms will need time, because there are thousands and tens of thousands of people at stake, and it is absolutely essential to avoid harming their lives.
Russia's current realities as they are, the president is the one who will pronounce the final verdict. The military aspect of space and civilian space exploration enjoy Vladimir Putin's persistent attention.
- You’ve mentioned fitness. Does this mean there still remains some excessive fat to be burned?
- I’d put it differently. We are in the process of introducing a motivated economic model at our enterprises. Among other things, it implies divesting from non-core assets – health resorts, countryside retreats and childcare centers, which are to be transferred to the municipalities’ balance sheets.
Second, there is what in the Soviet era was called the scientific organization of labor. The current fancy term for it is lean techniques. In other words, it is a rational attitude to the manufacturing process.
One day I visited an industrial facility where we are going to make a latest generation rocket. I asked the chief engineer: “Please show me how the metalware moves about the plant during the production process.” They drew a chart: we take it here, then bring it there and then move it back. It looked like Brownian movement… What’s the point of moving it from place to place a hundred times? Better organization of production is a colossal resource to slash costs.
Third, introducing a digital system of production management, with all accounting done at one center and cutting the administrative staff. It’s the engineers and designers who must take center stage. Success depends on them.
- And still, do you have any plans for dropping some programs due to financial constraints?
- No, but many things will have to be put on the back burner.
- Such as?
- We can cope with a Mars exploration project on our own. We have the technologies. Its funding was cut, though, so we had to look for partners and we found one - the European Space Agency. We’ll pool resources. We won’t drop the project altogether. We’ll internationalize it. The launch vehicle is ours, the landing module Kazachok is ours, too, while the cruise vehicle is European. We’ll split the costs.
The Chinese have enough money not to team up with anybody. The Americans do, too. As for us, poor people have to be endlessly resourceful… Leadership in space must not be ceded to anyone. It’s like big sports. The eyes of the world are on those who have more Olympic medals.
- What about the lunar program?
- The Lavochkin Research and Production Association is assembling the probes. Some pieces of hardware are ready. Next autumn, we hope to carry out a launch, the first in over a long period of time.
During the Soviet era, seventy-one lunar probes were launched. How many, do you think, reached their destination?
- You question prompts me to believe that very few of them succeeded.
- Twenty-four. All of the other probes were lost. Generally speaking, this is easy to explain, because it was an extremely complex task. And it has not become easier now. Technologies live on as long as their masterminds are alive.
Then the competences have to be created anew.
The probe I’m talking about will be called Luna-25.
- Is it part of the lift you’ve already talked about?
- No, that’s slightly different. What some have called a space lift – a system of liftoff and landing, a link between the orbiter and the lunar surface. It is a professional term. A slang word, rather. It should not be taken too literally.
- How long did it take you to master this professional vocabulary?
- Seated in front of you is the head of a team that authored the first-ever military-technological and military political glossary War and Peace in Terms and Definitions. Naturally, I know what is what.
- You are a man of many talents! A Jack of all trades!
- My good education is to blame.
- Ah, yes, the department of journalism at Moscow State University: the place that churns out Russia’s envoys to NATO, deputy prime ministers in charge of the nation’s defenses and Roscosmos CEOs.
- You’ve mentioned some of the milestones in my career, yet I’m talking about a characteristic university education, of which I am particularly proud of.
It is competence and professional aptitude that I have in mind.
- As far as my first education is concerned, I’m rather a diplomat and specialist in military politics. Now, I have the rank of Russia’s ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary. But I’m very comfortable in the company of engineers and designers. We use the same language. Let me explain something. I grew up in a family of technical people. One of my grandfathers was one of Russia’s first air pilots and then founders of Soviet Russia’s aviation industry.
And one of my grandfathers was an assistant professor at the Moscow Aviation Institute. My father graduated from a flight school and the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy. He was an outstanding organizer of the country’s defense industry and science. He led the 13th directorate for strategic research and held the position of first deputy chief of the service for armaments at the Soviet Union’s Defense Ministry. It was my dad who shaped the Soviet Union’s program for armaments in the 1980s. To be more precise, it was built under his guidance. My sister is an aircraft engineer and her husband is a designer. That’s the background I’m from. I have engineering habits in my bones. When I was seven or eight, I read a book entitled A Theory of Jet Engines I found on my father’s bookshelf.
- Instead of an ABC-book?
- Right after it. I knew already then what a ramjet engine and a liquid propellant rocket engine were and I could explain the fundamental differences between the two. By all odds, I should have followed in my father’s footsteps, but I decided to make a drastic turn in life and applied to Moscow State University, instead of the Moscow Aviation Institute, where some were already waiting for me. But it was not journalism that I majored in there. We studied to be international affairs experts. One of my two graduation papers at the university was devoted to France’s military policies. Simultaneously, I attended lectures at the department of history. That’s my other higher education. Knowledge of history is a safeguard against future mistakes.
Also, I finished a two-year course in economics at the Marx–Engels–Lenin Institute under the Communist Party’s Central Committee. At first, I was not very enthusiastic about the idea of studying there, but I was delegated there from the Committee of Youth Organizations, where I worked at that moment. I graduated with honors, too. Also, you should throw in the experience I gained in Brussels and in the State Duma, where as chairman of the foreign affairs committee I prepared strategic arms reduction treaties and the comprehensive nuclear tests ban treaty for ratification.
I never stopped building up my capabilities and my advice to everybody else is to follow suit.
- The Marx–Engels–Lenin Institute closed down a long time ago. But Das Kapital is still there.
Dialectics is the sole scientific method of studying the causes behind the changes of socio-economic systems. I regard myself as a Marxist, although I’ve never been in the Communist Party. I spent a year as a candidate for admission, but then I went to a meeting of the Communist Party local, tabled my membership card and said that I’d changed my mind.
- When was that?
- In 1988. I had some problems for a while. I was not allowed to travel abroad for a period of 18 months, but I was strongly reluctant to have anything in common with Gorbachev’s opportunism. I hate him for the lies and the meaningless rhetoric…
And the last remark, to wrap up discussing my education. Some people are university graduates with degrees but have no knowledge. I’m an engineer de facto, because my teacher in this profession was a great specialist himself - my own father - who is a holder of a doctorate degree in science, and a holder of the USSR State Award. It was my own father who systematically instructed me in the basics of the engineering profession. In fact, he delivered a course of lectures. It was all for real. Not in a university auditorium, though, but at home. He even forced me to take exams, including the strength of materials. He was the examiner himself. In the long run, I found that very useful. And I’m immensely grateful to my dad for this.
That was in 1993-1994.
In a word, I went through good, solid training as an engineer.
- It is essential that the technical community regard you as one of their own.
- You can go and ask them yourself what they think about me. We use the same language.
You know, I like the process of learning and knowing how to study. I’ve never felt shy. In 1996, I defended a candidate’s dissertation, and in 1999 a doctorate on philosophy at Moscow State University. At 35, I became the youngest holder of a doctorate degree on the philosophy of war. I delivered a series of special lectures at the Academy of the General Staff. Several years ago, I obtained a doctorate degree in the technical sciences…
- Did the (Dissernet) volunteer network crusader against plagiarism in Russian science test your works for any ‘borrowings’?
- My education and family honor do not let me risk my reputation. Although I have to recall that when I was still a State Duma member, I had to go through the procedure of extra defense at the Higher Attestation Commission (VAK) to make my ill-wishers shut up. As far as the technical dissertation is concerned, it is unlikely the Dissernet had a chance to see it, because its subject concerning the theory of armaments was classified. The defense of my thesis at the Kuznetsov Naval Academy lasted for five hours. I didn’t receive a single black ball at all in the end. But I still remember my shirt was soaked in sweat when it was all over. The dialogue with the Academy’s specialists was thorough and very serious.
In a word, I’m quite comfortable in the engineering environment and have in-depth knowledge of the great cause for which I am responsible to the country and its president.
For a period of four years, I was Russia’s representative to NATO. In November 2011, Putin phoned me and said: “That’s enough. Stop loafing around and get back to Moscow…” Then I spent two weeks waiting. On December 23, President Dmitry Medvedev issued a decree to appoint me as a deputy prime minister in the Putin-led Cabinet.
That was no easy period. The very same Roscosmos in 2011 had five accidents. And literally a couple of days after I took a seat on the Cabinet, a fire on the submarine The Yekaterinburg followed. It was undergoing repairs while staying loaded with ballistic missiles and torpedoes. Urgent measures had to be taken that night to prevent a disaster.
The submarine was saved, but it took 18 months to repair it. I vowed that The Yekaterinburg would be repaired. And it materialized. The submarine is operational again.
There was a time when I underwent thorough instruction in military-technical affairs and in running a mammoth military-industrial complex, which was then struggling through some tough times. At the same time, it was a chance to continue my father’s cause. In 2013, I addressed the president with a proposal for restoring the class of general designers. Memories were still fresh of the frequent evenings when my father welcomed some of the most outstanding inventors and designers of military technologies into our home. I was often allowed into their company. I would humbly take a seat in the corner and listen to their conversations with tremendous respect and awe. Those memories sparked my idea of restoring the status of general designers in society. Some dramatic debates followed, but in the end my point of view prevailed and the president inked a corresponding decree.
It took me a whole year on the deputy prime minister’s seat to learn the ropes. This was much more than at any of the previous positions, because it was an extremely complex job and tremendous responsibility. I’m glad I had a direct bearing on the revival of our military-industrial complex and rearmament of the army and the navy.
- In 2017, we recorded an interview with you for TASS. It remained unpublished, but as far as I can remember, you confidently asserted that your timetable was tight until 2027. It so happens that men propose, but God and the bosses dispose, doesn’t it?
I must’ve been wrong about myself, but as far as the defense industrial complex is concerned, everything was done right. Programs then were drafted for a decade to come. The plans we put together back in the mid-2000s continue to be implemented successfully.
The same is true of the space industry. We are now looking beyond the horizon of 2030.
- What I have in mind is different. Figuratively speaking, in 2018 you were shot down during ascent…
- Why? What makes you say so?
- Your current position is certainly what some would describe as downshifting. After occupying the post of a deputy prime minister…
- Firstly, I’m no downshifter. Secondly, nobody shot me off course.
I can tell you how it happened. On November 28, 2017, the Vostochny spaceport experienced a breakdown. Strictly speaking, the rocket blasted off, but the flight task contained a silly error. As a result, we lost the space satellite Meteor.
I should say that when the rate of accidents is high, the insurance premium soars. We had persuaded the insurers that we were reliable only to suffer this terrible mishap… Of course, it was a slap in the face. One month later, another failure followed. The Angosat satellite went dead when it was already in designated orbit. A large African country was our customer. We’d hoped for further cooperation and more contracts…
In a word, Putin made a decision to replace Roscosmos’ management and told me as a deputy prime minister to select candidates.
I set out on a search to find nobody but … myself. There was to be someone capable of lobbying for the industry’s interests, familiar with the way the government and Roscosmos work and having direct contact with the president. At the end of March 2018, I discussed that with Putin, I told him I was ready to try myself. Putin invited me to the Konstantinovsky Palace in St. Petersburg at the end of May, after the old Cabinet was out and a new one took over.
- And you were absent from the new one.
- I had no plans for being there at all. I had no expectations that I might stay, because to my mind I had been finished with that project and implemented all of my plans. The program for armaments was in full swing. All measures had been finalized. I coped with my duty. You see?
- No, I don’t.
- I’m a politician. Career seeking principles are not my only guides in life. To be useful to the nation to the fullest you’ve got to have access to decision-making. It’s a delusion a deputy prime minister has limitless powers. In reality, a great deal depends on the management, the selection of the right people, their professionalism and the willpower of those who are at the helm of entire industries. I wanted to right the wrongs in Roscosmos and I knew how to do that.
The president supported me. He said, “You volunteered. Now, go ahead and try.”
- Did you agree right then and there?
- Naturally! I’d dreamed about that job. Now it’s my life. It’s great to spend whole nights thinking about space rockets and space ports.
My wife scolds me: “Can you talk about anything else apart from space?”
And you say it’s downshifting… How can it be possible to say such things when your dream about doing a job you love has come true? It’s a very different kind of work – not administrative, but economic. There is an enormous pile of tasks, a colossal number of people who must be persuaded to trust you, while your mission is to inspire them through your own example. The space industry is not only about production, it’s big politics. A sort of shop display window of the country’s technological potential.
- That store display window is not all what it’s cracked up to be… There’ve been ever fewer launches.
- This is not the main indicator. A rocket is a means of transport. Its objective is to deliver a spacecraft into a designated orbit. Rockets do not fly without payloads. If there is nothing to transport, there will be no launches. Given the sanctions our country is under, we certainly have limited room for maneuver. It’s not a mistake by Roscosmos. It’s the global situation.
- Incidentally, you’ve been put on the sanction list. Is this a hindrance to your work?
- Now it’s harder to contact European counterparts. The Americans at a certain point invited me to visit NASA, but then changed their mind. It was not a very decent or proper decision for them to take. I wouldn’t say that I feel hurt, though. My pride wasn’t wounded. It’s OK. They don’t let me visit other countries? Fine. There’ll be far more time to travel about my own country, where there are so many things worth seeing.
Let’s go back to the issue of space launches. I can just reiterate that we cope with all of our tasks set by the Ministry of Defense.
There is the crewed program on the ISS. We implement it to the letter. In 2019, Roscosmos carried out 25 launches. And there were ten launches of combat missiles. As a matter of fact, these are the very same space rockets, launched from submarines, silos or mobile vehicles.
Thirty-five all in all – precisely as many as had been anticipated. We might’ve launched more, had it not been for unfair competition by the Americans. They are keen to lay their hands on all contracts around the world that may come their way and threaten to slap sanctions against those who consider our services as an alternative. [The threat of sanctions] is not only against individual space industries, but entire countries, as well. Also, they fib about their launches being cheaper. We know our economy and theirs, and we count every ruble and every dollar. Competition is fierce. We compete with them only in parts of the globe that are more or less independent and not US-oriented. Besides, China and India launch space satellites on their own.
- Originally you had plans for 40 launches in 2020.
- One of the main ones that had to be postponed was ExoMars – a joint project with the European Space Agency. A contractor in Turin, Italy, turned out to be the stumbling block. The schedule collapsed. Our contribution was ready on time, but the Europeans warned us they were lagging behind. The next launch window for sending a mission to Mars will be in two years’ time, in September 2022. That’s one argument.
And the other is the space satellites OneWeb have failed to be delivered to Russia. The crisis, bankruptcies, the pullout of shareholders from the company, the suspension of production in the United States where the satellites were being made… Four launches were to be made from Vostochny in April-July. All had to be delayed. At best, one launch may take place by the end of the year. Literally, there are no satellites to put into space! The boosters and launch vehicles are in stock. It is a commercial program, but it is stalled, because the foreign partners have failed to provide payloads.
We’ll cope with the rest. Everything that is scheduled to fly will fly. But some launches will apparently be moved to 2021. Next year will be tighter and more eventful.
- And why has the Angara affair dragged on for so long?
- I spent a while trying to realize what happened. The heavy rocket Angara-A5 blasted off in 2014, but its parameters fell short of the customer’s expectations. The maximum payload turned out to be smaller than required. In the end, the designer documentation had to be fundamentally reworked. The vehicle’s second launch is due from Plesetsk in November. For the time being preparations are being made.
There is another problem that can explain the delay: the Khrunichev Center has long been split between two production sites – one in Moscow and the other in Omsk. A universal rocket module had to be brought from Siberia, tested and then sent back to Omsk, where it was assembled again. That was done many times. This was an utterly insane logistics and manufacturing pattern!
We made a decision the closed cycle serial production of Angara launch vehicles should be in Omsk. Work along these lines is in progress there. Starting from 2023, the plant will operate entirely on its own to produce several heavy rockets a year. It is a large investment project.
As far as the Moscow branch of the Khrunichev Center, the area it takes up is too large. At a certain point there were plans for selling it for 25 billion rubles. But in August 2018, Putin decided to abort the idea of using this area for housing construction, for which I am very grateful to him.
We had a discussion with Moscow’s Mayor Sergey Sobyanin to come up with a joint project. We shared our ideas with Putin and he firmly supported us. What is it about? A technopark will be created on an area of 90 hectares of old and abandoned workshops and warehouses. Aviation and space-related industries, including private ones, will emerge there instead. Companies eager to participate in the project are being selected.
The remaining vacant territory that will remain under the control of Moscow’s authorities will accommodate an engineering center for a staff of 20,000. The project will be Moscow-funded. Roscosmos will not spend a dime. Our employees in Moscow number 50,000. We will bring most of them together on that site. Cutting-edge industrial facilities will stay in the remaining area of 50 hectares. Hydrogen-fueled rockets will begin to be made there.
In this technopark project, Roscosmos will have a blocking stake of 25% plus one share. It was Putin’s personal decision. We will have a cluster that will bring together all designers. Production at the Moscow Rocket Plant will be preserved and upgraded. We find this more than sufficient. This site will be next to the engineering center. Everything will be linked into one whole, including the basic departments of leading universities: all in one.
- When will it be finished?
- Moscow is promising to put the finishing touches on it at the end of 2022. We are still in the process of deciding what firms, companies and design bureaus will be moved there. Also, there will be a twin of Mission Control, interfaced with the head office in Korolyov.
- What floor did you choose for your own office?
- I don’t remember. It does not matter.
- The higher you stand, the further you see.
- Hopefully, it’s not in the basement. My prime concern is to have something worth seeing in front of me.
- Many would like to see the Oryol, which had long been scheduled to replace the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft. When will this “bird” fly?
- Let me make it clear. When the Americans in 2011 closed down their own crewed program, Roscosmos had to shoulder an enormous burden. We were the only ones obliged to deliver astronauts and cosmonauts to the ISS and back. For this reason, a shortage of crewmembers in the Russian segment ensued. We were rather limited in our research experiments. The flight program had to be reduced. But we agreed to meet NASA’s requirements and kept delivering US crews for nine years.
In the meantime, they used the time and colossal resources to create their own spacecraft. For instance, SpaceX received about four billion dollars, and Boeing, still more. They spent tremendous resources just for the sake of ending dependence on Russians.
Naturally, we have been working on our own spacecraft - a new one. But it is different from Crew Dragon or, say, Starliner or Boeing. Oryol is a counterpart of Orion, a reusable spacecraft. It’s not for low orbits or for the ISS. For this we have the Soyuz MS. May it go on flying. It will be able to cope with its tasks well enough for another ten years. Oryol is needed for missions beyond the Earth’s magnetic field amid high radiation. It will possess unique features that enable it to perform re-entry at an escape velocity and enter the atmosphere in far harsher conditions than the space capsules that currently service the ISS.
The work is on. Under our plans the first test launch of an Oryol spacecraft is to take place from Vostochny in November or December 2023.
As far as the Soyuz MS is concerned, I can reiterate that its life cycle is not over. What objective needs to be solved? Getting to the ISS? Delivering crewmembers safely and evacuating them in an emergency? Our spacecraft has been involved in just three incidents so far. A fire at the launch pad and at the moment of its separation from rocket stages. In all three cases the crew was rescued.
Now it’s the United States’ turn to achieve the same safety rates. This is the main criterion. True, the Soyuz vehicle is not as roomy as Elon Musk’s spaceship. His is glamorous and beautiful, but it costs far more than ours and it has not yet been tested in any emergency. It’s too early to pop the champagne corks. One should be more cautious in making ambitious statements. Musk still lacks statistics. And his spaceship has not been certified yet.
As for Boeing, it just missed its objective to reach the ISS. It was launched on New Year’s Eve only to go off course. In the meantime, we keep setting world speed records in delivering space crews to the ISS.
- What can you say about the handgun that is being developed for space crews? What kind of enemy it is going to be used against?
- Firearms have always been an integral part of the emergency kit, available on board just in case of urgent landing. For instance, to hunt for food or to defend oneself against beasts of prey. A special handgun was developed at the cosmonauts’ request back in the Soviet era. Now a new one has been made. That first one was a triple barrel weapon. Two rifled barrels for a 5.45 mm bullet and one 20mm smooth barrel. The latter can be used to fire flares to give a distress signal to rescuers.
Remember the movie The Age of Pioneers? Honestly, that film has very little to do with the truth. Too many things were made up. In reality, Belyayev and Leonov were found very quickly. If the movie is to be believed, they were unable even to make a shelter or a campfire and were shivering in their spacesuits all the time… Sheer nonsense! All of our crews, even foreign ones, go through a survival crash course. Even the guys from the United Arab Emirates, who flew to the ISS in September last year, had been trained to make a camp in the woods, like real scouts. This explains why there are weapons and other essential security and survival items on board.
- Does the CEO take survival courses, too?
- I’ve had enough of them already. My own experience in this respect is worthy of any cosmonaut’s.
- Hasn’t it ever occurred to you travel to the stars?
- I’d do that with pleasure. Is there a real man who would refuse? Problems have never scared me or made me stop. There is a big question, though: who will pay for my flight?
- Could you please disclose the names of the two space tourists who are ready to fly on their own dime?
- Believe me, I’m still uninformed myself. Such are the rules of relations with the company that sells the flights. We’ll know them before long.
- I’ve read some place you are about to launch the first-ever space TV channel. Is it true?
- This is correct. The channel will be launched on YouTube, in cooperation with digital broadcasters.
- What content are you planning to broadcast?
- It might be a good idea to plant cameras that will be showing online what is happening in orbit or at the cosmonauts training center, and what is being done to gear rockets up for a launch. We may show what kind of unique data we receive from our orbital cluster, our research satellites. It is very informative and very important. For instance, while studying Venus we may obtain answers to many questions concerning the present day and the future of the Earth.
Also, the history of cosmonautics should be studied in order to avoid mistakes and realize how to save humanity and our planet.
We wish to pay greater attention to instruction and documentary films, to highlight the job done by launchpad personnel, designers and engineers. This is the task of our TsNIImash-based media group.
- Aren’t you going to host a show of your own? You know as a tribute to your first profession?
- Only if I’m invited. My schedule is tight, but I will try to do my best to participate in some programs.
- When did the aura of romanticism start fading away and the public at large began to forget the names of cosmonauts?
- During the last days of the Soviet Union, I believe. The focus was on routine maintenance and operation of crewed orbital stations. The public became generally unaware of what sorts of breakthroughs were achieved in space exploration. The launch of the Soviet space shuttle Buran with the Energia rocket was quite an event. It’s like the Spektr-RG today. A very bright page in history, unjustifiably underestimated. When we produce a transport energy module, or a nuclear space reactor, it will certainly make society burst with enthusiasm. As for routine flights, they no longer stir up the interest they once used to.
Although a cosmonaut’s job has not become easier, the space crews in fact sit on a powder keg. There is a huge fueled rocket below, and it takes efforts by a team of 300 to ready it for flight. When I have a cup of tea with the crews before blastoff, I see how emotional and nervous they may get. This is natural. The strain is colossal. Any detail may turn out to be fatal.
- Then why don’t you tell us more about that little small hole?
- Are you asking me about the hole in a compartment of the Soyuz spacecraft that in August 2018 caused a drop in air pressure inside?
- Right! Was it an act of sabotage or a result of sloppy workmanship?
We did our job 100 percent. Moreover, I flew to Baikonur myself to meet the crew, who brought the samples. Oleg Kononenko had taken from the compartment’s external surface. Oleg had spent seven hours working outside the station together with Sergey Prokopiev. The cosmonauts did everything they had to do to establish the truth. I took those samples and handed them over to the investigators.
- You can go and ask them. And then we’ll answer, too. Our specialists understand what happened. But now it is the prerogative of those pushing ahead with the investigation to present their findings. Why should I make any comments?
I can just say that it was an extremely unpleasant incident, even insulting to the industry, but I have no moral right to speculate. May the investigators say what it was…
- But will they?
- You know what the problem is? There is no hardware. No material for analysis. That cabin was detached from the re-entry capsule and burned up in the atmosphere. This is precisely why we did everything we could, while it was still in orbit. We sent specialists to examine it. Oleg Kononenko – the chief of the cosmonauts’ team was sent on a mission to take all samples the investigators were asking for. Now it’s their turn.
- I can’t help but ask you about Elon Musk. When we mentioned him, you barely scratched the surface.
- You make me feel he is a close relative of mine…
- Your alter ego.
- No, no. That would be Jim Bridenstein, NASA’s chief, and not the CEO of a private company.
- But Musk has kicked up quite a stir.
- Good for him. On the one hand.
- In what respect?
- Bold engineering solutions and the fuss over them.
- And on the other?
- We all know that the economic aspect is not impeccable at all.
- But there have been a hundred launches already.
- No, no, no. What I’m hinting at is different. How many times have the rocket stages been reused? We tried to use this technology, too, but our calculations show that it is not as effective with oxygen-kerosene engines, which Musk and we have. This solution is good for methane-fueled engines. Liquefied natural gas makes it possible to avoid engine overhaul after each flight. You can just attach them to another rocket stage and launch again.
We will do that, but on a different technological basis, not the one Musk used. But he deserves praise for being the first to demonstrate that this thing really works.
- Yes, yes, the “trampoline is working” that was his reply to you.
- The context was different. I made that statement under certain circumstances, when the Americans tried to impose sanctions on Roscosmos. I was just curious how they would go about the business of sending their astronauts to the ISS on our spacecraft and at the same time enforce sanctions against us. My proposal was: guys, either you take sanctions and use a trampoline for flights to the ISS or we go ahead with joint work. Make a choice, please. They opted for the latter.
- But in the end, they managed to deliver the astronauts on their own, without a trampoline, and with their own rocket.
- Listen, they were bound to do this sooner or later. They are a great country and the most powerful one technologically. Of course, they delivered. It was a long-awaited event. That’s excellent, good for them. But what’s the achievement? Yes, they are capable of delivering crews to the ISS, just like Russia. But what’s so brilliant about that? We did that long ago, back in the Soviet era. I’m saying so very seriously. Yes, it is a beautiful spaceship, painted white.
Musk displayed remarkable skill in using a good engineering solution to draw a colossal investment, but not into the company SpaceX, but into the one that makes Tesla, which is overestimated more than a hundred times.
But I do respect Musk as a gifted businessman and a talented engineer. He built his business on military principles, where the discipline is strict and bureaucracy minimized.
- Some have been calling for a monument to Musk to be built. They have even launched a signup campaign. Have you heard about that?
- I won’t be surprised if some of his frenzied admirers might want to kiss his boots. In this country you can come across different types of people.
It’s worth supporting our own bright minds, rather than bowing down to the West in humble adoration. Especially, when our domestic specialists are having a hard time. Cosmonautics is not just a job for those employed in the industry. It is a national cause and we have the right to count on support. Even more so since Roscosmos is back on track and is developing.
Let me say once again: Musk is a man of talent, but the young people working for us are just as gifted. They are to be helped and given a chance to show their potential.
Instead, some of our financial organizations have launched a special campaign to raise money in Russia for SpaceX. They must be the same people who want to put up a monument to Musk.
Both Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin pointed out that these types would not hesitate to pawn off their own mother, if promised a 1,000% profit. I believe that if our oligarchs make money in Russia, they are obliged to spend money in their own country. And their children are obliged to study at home. When I see some settle down in London and invest millions of dollars earned in Russia into a competitor of Russia’s high-tech company, I shake my head in disbelief.
- Go ahead and offer a more attractive product.
We have been working on this, but we don’t have an IPO or public structures that trade their shares on the market. Ours is a different pattern of organizing and running the industry. It’s a government corporation. I believe that at this stage it is correct. And it will remain so until we are through with the renovation and upgrade and can offer a new generation of space rocket technologies to the market.
This may happen in three years from now. In the long term, we may decide to draw private investment into our joint stock companies. There should be certain consistency in all of our steps. But this by no means excuses those bad guys who are eager to play into our rivals’ hands. You know what I mean? I’m very negative about this. True, people may be weak, selfish and envious, but they should by all means stay humans and behave themselves.
Even more so, since private investment in Russia’s space industry is already a reality. We support this trend by all means. Would you like me to mention some examples? With great pleasure! The S7 group has purchased the Sea Launch space complex. Now we are discussing with partners ways of resuming launches from this unique platform. Our plan is to use the new Soyuz-5 launch vehicle.
We have signed an agreement with MTKS, a private company, to create a reusable cargo spacecraft Argo. Along with the VIS group, we have a joint working team for deploying a cluster of satellites for remote sensing of the Earth. The Barl company is our partner in creating a unique space data processing center. Also, it is likely to participate in creating an orbital group over the Arctic. We keep cultivating cooperation with AFK Sistema setting our sights on creating a space instruments manufacturing company. And a strategy for creating composite materials and using additive technologies is central to our cooperation with private stakeholders in the Kompozit joint venture. I can spend a while listing examples and groups of enthusiasts and engineers who have been coming to us with their ideas. Opening space to the private sector is very important to us and to the country in general.
- Now, another topic that we cannot bypass in this interview is coronavirus. In what other ways, other than postponed launches, has the pandemic affected the corporation?
Some of our branches have been forced to shift their personnel to remote work. Some people went on vacation. In April, several Roscosmos branches worked at half of their capacity.
We started taking precautions much earlier than the others. This policy turned out to be very reasonable. We protected both Baikonur and Vostochny and other closed administrative-territorial entities.
We weathered last spring’s launch schedule with minimal losses.
- There have been some losses after all?
In our industry, the coronavirus took the lives of 47 people. More than 4,700 are known to have had COVID-19.
- Have you been vaccinated?
No, and I have no such plans for the time being.
- I take all the necessary precautions. As the chairman of the government commission that is contact with space crews I remain under permanent medical surveillance. I have no right to make decisions regarding vaccination on my own.
- Do you have any plans for vaccinating cosmonauts with Sputnik V?
- Let me say once again: no liberties are to be taken before space flights. We’ll go and vaccinate everybody the moment we are given a go-ahead from the Federal Biomedical Agency. When it comes to health protection, I rely entirely on the opinion of our specialists. They are in the know.
- This year has been a hectic one in many respects. They say a huge asteroid is flying towards the Earth. Where will its flight path go?
- They fly past now and then… Russia’s Detection and Warning Automated System of Hazardous Situations in Near-Earth Space helps the ISS avoid dangerous proximity with meteorites and space debris by correcting its orbit whenever necessary. We do see celestial bodies flying towards the Earth – both big and small. And we keep an eye on the asteroids, of course, and know their trajectories.
But your question is quite reasonable. I am a firm supporter of fast-tracked development of an asteroid risk warning system. There must be a large international program.
There are no big threats anywhere near in sight for the time being, but near collisions or fly-bys should not be ruled out. Scientists are still discussing the Sikhote-Alin iron meteorite shower. There is a theory the Moon appeared as a result of the Earth’s collision with another celestial body. Quite a few theories claim that our planet at different times was bombarded by large objects, let alone small ones, like the Chelyabinsk meteorite. Such risks do exist. We should look into how to protect civilization. Identifying the risk of a collision is not enough. What are we to do next? Cross ourselves, put on clean white garments and head for the cemetery? Of course, not! We’ve got to have a technique of avoiding unnecessary encounters, to know how to change the trajectory of potentially dangerous objects, if the risk they may get too close is confirmed. That’s our task for the future.
- And what do have now? What’s on your planning horizon?
- Mine? I’m happy to see my grandchildren grow. Fyodor, the eldest, is a teenage cadet at a Suvorov military school. Artyom, the youngest, has just started going to school.
And my granddaughter, Maria, is in the middle. My horizons are now infinite. I’m doomed to stay restless until I know I’ve helped the whole family bring up the kids and have done everything I can to turn them into professionals and worthy citizens of their country.
- How much longer is your contract with Roscosmos going to last?
- It’s an open-ended one. Everything is in the president’s hands. I’ll keep working as long as Vladimir Putin finds me effective enough.