Space: Saving The Russian Space Program

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August 22, 2013: The Russian government recently 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 in the last three years 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.

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 has apparently not been dismissed because he is qualified to do the job and is encountering a lot of problems with corruption and decades of bad management. Russian politicians and state controlled media, both heavily involved in corrupt activities, are not eager to make a big deal of how corruption is crippling the RSA.

The problems with RSA are many. Recently, for example, an expensive mapping satellite fell to earth after seventeen months trapped in a bad orbit. This was the result of a flawed launch attempt that 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 and why Vladimir Popovkin was being worked to death.

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 the GEO-IK-2 loss, Russia fired two senior managers of the RSA, 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. 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 collapse of the communist Soviet Union in 1991.

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 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 RSA is expected if the government can find someone more qualified than Vladimir Popovkin to do the deed. Senior government officials know that Popovkin is not the problem and that the corrupt environment he has to work in is. Cleaning that up means cleaning up the corruption throughout Russian society. That requires more than the vertical chop, it takes time and persistence.  

 

 


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