Space: Another Shake Up Of The Russian Space Agency

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July 30, 2013: Seventeen months after a flawed launch attempt left it in a useless (too low) orbit, the Russian GEO-IK-2 earth mapping satellite entered the atmosphere on July 15th and completely burned up. No fragments of the 1.4 ton satellite were reported to have reached the surface, at least not anywhere that would be noticed by people. How and why this happens explains a lot about why Russia never became a superpower in space.

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 reliably. 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 the GEO-IK-2 loss, Russia fired two senior managers of the Russian Space Agency, plus some lesser managers, because of the December, 2010 loss of three navigation satellites. The December 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.

But the vertical chop still lives in some areas. The U.S. Navy, for example, will fire the captain of a ship, and often several other officers as well, when there is an accident. This recognizes the fact that accidents with ships can be very expensive and get a lot of people killed. While the officers fired don't like it, most naval officers accept the vertical chop as a necessary evil. There are always plenty of capable officers available to replace those dismissed and the replacements have the fear of the vertical chop to encourage them to do better.

That said, the Russian satellite launchers are far from perfect. 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 Russian Space Agency suits put their jobs on the line every time one of those rockets is launched.

The repercussions continue 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 Russian Space Agency is expected.  

 


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