On November 28th there was another failure by a Russian satellite launcher to get its valuable cargo into orbit. This failure was traced to a software error in the “fregat” third stage that carried one large weather satellite and 18 tiny cubesats. The control software for the third stage of the Soyuz 2.1 rocket was programmed for launch from the Balkinor launch facility but the failed launch was from the new Vostochny space center. If fact, this was only second launch from Vostochny, which became operational in 2016. The Russian engineers did not change the flight control software to indicate a launch from Vostochny (in the Russian Far East) rather than the Cold War era Balkinor which, since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, belongs to the new Central Asian state of Kazakhstan.
This mishap was disappointing but not unexpected because Russia saw its defense and space related technology efforts rapidly deteriorate in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Suddenly Russia was much smaller and with fewer people and a new economic and political system. Skilled technical talent could no longer he kept confined to jobs and neighborhoods determined by the government. After 1991 the “talent” was set free and most, especially the managers, wanted to work anywhere but the state owned (or controlled) defense industries. This should have been anticipated because half the Soviet population left to form new nations (or revive old ones).
In 1991 over sixty years of communist rule ended and Russians were free to work where they wanted and few of the technically skilled Russians stayed with state owned defense and space related organizations. This crippled Russian efforts to maintain its space program and suddenly Russia was putting fewer satellites into orbit and a growing number of those launches were failures because there were far fewer experienced managers and engineers available to make it work consistently. This loss of talent was felt throughout the Russian defense industries and since the mid-1990s there were growing complaints from commanders about quality control problems with the new (post-1991) weapons. This was especially true with nuclear submarines, ballistic missiles and aircraft. The problems seemed to be worst, and most embarrassing, in the space program.
In the West the free market made it easier to get the talent and management you needed for exacting tasks like building and launching satellites into orbit. These same skills were required for all the more advanced defense technology projects. The “golden cage” approach the Soviet communists used worked for a while but crumbled to dust along with the rest of the communist police state. China learned from the Soviet failure and found a way to get free markets to work in a communist police state. North Korea still uses the Soviet method and it sort of works but at the cost of destroying North Korea in a much more thorough fashion that the Soviet Union experienced. The central problem in all these situations is the corrosive impact of corruption. Post 1991 Russians came to understand how this worked but have not yet been able to develop a cure.
In 1999 a new Russian government came into power and has been trying real hard to fix the problem, with only limited success. For example in mid-2013 the government 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 since 2010 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.
This failure was worse than it appeared. 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 was qualified to do the job and encountered 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. What Popovkin also had to deal with was a chronic shortage to competent and reliable technical people.
In 2010 the problems with RSA are many and most of them involved the inability to put expensive mapping satellites into orbit. In one case a flawed launch attempt left the Russian GEO-IK-2 earth mapping satellite in a useless (too low) orbit for 17 months until it entered the atmosphere 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 GEO-IK-2 burned up on reentry, 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 1991 collapse.
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 was 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.
Another problem Russia has was where to launch its satellites from. On April 28th 2016 Russia carried out its first satellite launch at its new Vostochny space center (Cosmodrome). A Soyuz rocket put three civilian satellite into orbit. This Cosmodrome is in the Russian Far East (Amur Province, just north of Manchuria), unlike the Soviet era site in what is now the independent state of Kazakhstan. Construction of the Amur site began in 2010 as Russia realized Kazakhstan was becoming a very difficult landlord. Construction of Vostochny moved quickly in part because the site used to be Svobodny 18, an ICBM base that was shut down in 1993 as part of the START disarmament treaty. Amur Province was ultimately selected because of weather (it averaged only 50-60 overcast days a year, had a dry climate and calm winds) and the absence of earthquakes. Everything went according to schedule as first launches were planned to begin in 2016. This was made possible by the government acting quickly when signs of corruption periodically surfaced. Three construction executives were arrested for corruption and many others threatened. Construction is still going on, mainly to build equipment and facilities for handling heavier cargoes, including supplies and components for space stations. This worked for the completion of Vostochny but not for the rockets and satellites that were sent to Vostochny to be put into orbit.
Military launches will largely remain at Plesetsk, near the Arctic Circle. While Plesetsk's location is good for some types of launches (high inclination, polar, and highly elliptical orbits), the place is frozen most of the year and more expensive to operate because of the climate.
Meanwhile Baikonur has not been abandoned, In 2013 Russia agreed to remain in Baikonur after the Kazakh government agreed to reduce its demands for higher rent. Russia had threatened to cut launches at Balkinor from 75 percent of the Russian total to ten percent by the end of the decade. Kazakhstan originally demanded a lot more money and threatened to shut down Balkinor if the Russians did not pay. In 2012 Russia paid Kazakhstan $115 million a year for the use of Balkinor, in addition to the $50 million a year spent to maintain the facility. Many Kazakhs saw Balkinor as an ATM and anytime there was a cash shortage, they could make a withdrawal and the Russians would be forced to pay. The Russians convinced the Kazakhs that plans to leave Balkinor were real. It was pointed out that Balkinor where the commercial satellites were launched and Russia sold these “launch services” to a growing list of foreign customers. If Russia paid the higher fees the Kazakhs were demanding the foreign customers would have to pay more than other competitors charged and Russia would have to abandon Balkinor as uneconomical.
Russia had already moved all military launches to the smaller space center at Plesetsk. Russia can turn Baikonur into a big cash cow via commercial launches but the Kazakhs were finally convinced about this when construction of Vostochny began and moved ahead with unusual speed. Thus the Kazakhs agreed to more reasonable rent and, for the moment, Russia's largest satellite launch site is still in Kazakhstan. With Vostochny now operational the Kazakhs have to pay more attention to being a good landlord.
Founded in 1955 by the Soviet Union, Baikonur was long the main satellite launch facility for the Russians. But after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Baikonur found itself in the newly minted Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan. There it became more expensive and difficult for the Russians to use. Russia has leased the Baikonur complex from Kazakhstan since 1991 but this has led to periodic disputes over lease terms and the danger to locals from launch accidents. These disputes were settled but the costs kept rising. The Russians valued the Baikonur launch site as it is very efficient for some types of launchers (geostationary, lunar, planetary, and ocean surveillance missions, as well as all manned missions). But having your main launch site in a foreign country was seen as untenable. So the Russians began building a replacement site to the east, in Russian territory. All manned space programs will be moved to Vostochny by 2020. At that point the Russians will be able to abandon Baikonur, even though they have a lease that lasts until 2050. If the Russians left, they would take or destroy all their gear with them. No point in leaving anything to help a competitor launch satellites. In the end obtaining an affordable launch site proved far easier than regaining the ability to supply the launch site with rockets and satellites that work.