Space: Russian Roscosmos Reality Check


May 17, 2024: Roscosmos is the Russian space agency and has fallen on hard times over the last decade. This began before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Roscosmos was created by the new Russian Federation to replace the old Soviet Space Program organization. From the beginning Roscosmos never had enough money to pay for what the Russian government wanted done. Worse, SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicle) technology in the west, especially the United States, was more active and innovative than the Russians.

Reviving the Russian space program is a lot more difficult than most people realize. Russia needs a win for its space program to survive because since 1991, and especially in the last decade, the space program has been a disaster. The problems with the Russian Nauka module built for the ISS (International Space Station) was the latest embarrassment. In late 2019 it became a very public disaster when a senior government official openly complained about the corruption and incompetence that was crippling the Russian Space program. This was in reference to the 2018 investigation by auditors and prosecutors which found a billion dollars’ worth of corruption. Nearly as bad as the corruption has been the losses due to launch failures. Even with insurance Russia suffered nearly $200 million in losses from uninsured launch failures since 2010. Insurance took care of commercial launch failures but these also required Russia to refund over $300 million to customers who had lost satellites. Russia has a harder time finding customers and is paying more for launch insurance. Meanwhile the American SpaceX technology, with first stage rockets that return and land for reuse, is going to cost the Russians even more business. SpaceX was founded in 2002 and by 2010 had designed and successfully used its innovative reusable Falcon 9 SLV. By 2023 one of the early Falcon 9s had been used twenty times. This use of reusable SLVs dramatically reduced the cost of getting satellites and other items into orbit.

Roscosmos was already in trouble before SpaceX showed up. For example, at the end of 2019 it was announced Russia would conduct fifty launches in 2020. At the time this seemed ambitious. That was an understatement because Russia only had sixteen launches in 2020. That’s the worst launch performance since 2008. In one area Roscosmos did excel: the prosecution of officials for corruption.

Roscosmos was created in 1992 and immediately ran into problems with attracting competent workers and managers. Personnel quality kept declining and the average age keeps rising. The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant the end of a state-run economy. Russia as a whole prospered once people could work for whoever offered the best pay and professional opportunities. Roscosmos was seen as an employer of last resort for scientific and engineering personnel and those who manage that kind of work. The Russian space program turned into an extensive, about $3 billion a year make-work program for those who could not get jobs in profitable firms. By 2022 Roscosmos provided work for about 250,000 people, including many contractors. It was noted that the American space program did more with 30 percent fewer people. More importantly Roscosmos was still unable to offer competitive pay to attract and retain qualified personnel. This was especially true when it comes to senior officials, who have excelled in only one area: corruption and mismanagement.

The most plundered Roscosmos effort was not launching rockets but building or improving Cosmodrome launch facilities. The most prominent example was the decade-long effort to build the new Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East. This was in Amur Province, just north of Manchuria. More than 80 Roscosmos officials were convicted for Vostochny-related corruption. President Putin, who ordered several rounds of corruption investigations, was frustrated by the fact that many of the replacements for jailed officials were subsequently found to be engaged in the same corrupt acts as their predecessors. Putin has also fired many senior Roscosmos officials for inability to handle one or more aspects of their jobs.

Construction of Vostochny had been underway since 2011 and was still not finished. Costs rose as a result and are now over five billion dollars. New regulations have been enacted to make it more difficult for officials to set up offshore bank accounts or invest personal funds outside Russia. These Vostochny-related investigations and prosecutions began in 2014 and since then nearly 20,000 violations have been uncovered. Many of these were due to incompetence or sloppy management. Too many of these violations were criminal in nature, involving theft or misuse of government funds.

Most of the damage at major projects like Vostochny was the result of incompetence, but a lot of the poor work was deliberate. That was often the case when the use of substandard materials was involved. This occurred with a new launch pad and the defective concrete had to be laboriously removed and replaced with concrete capable of handling large rocket launches. Another major source of corruption involved payroll, as in reporting more employees working more hours than was actually the case. Procurement was another profitable area for the corrupt as items that did not exist or were substandard were paid for rather than what was needed.

The government auditors admitted that a lot of the problem was the result of Russia keeping details of such projects secret. Many of the scams would have been obvious if, as in the West, financial details of construction were public records available for anyone to examine. Classified (secret) projects are always more prone to corruption or incompetence that goes undetected longer because few people are monitoring how the money is spent.

Vostochny is for commercial, not military, launches and keeping construction details secret does not encourage potential foreign customers. Vostochny will only be profitable if there are a lot of foreign customers for inexpensive and reliable satellite launch services. The government wanted to make Vostochny a project demonstrating how the Russian space program is making a comeback. Instead Vostochny is turning out to be a reminder that not much has changed in Russia except that the traditional problems of corruption and poor management have gotten worse.

Low satellite production levels are another way Roscosmos lags behind the United States. Russia produces about 15 satellites annually. In theory this could be increased to 40 satellites a year. Even 40 satellites are not enough because, for military and civilian users combined, Russia needs about 250 satellites a year. Worse, Russia has fallen behind the west in the capabilities, quality, and reliability of their satellites. Roscosmos cannot compete and with current resources, especially skilled technical and managerial manpower, Russia is way behind and not likely to catch up to the west, or even China, any time soon.




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