In June 2021 Russia passed a law that banned any media coverage of their space program without government permission. A month later the new Russian made Nauka (“Science”) module arrived at the ISS (International Space Station) and, three hours after it was attached to the rest of the ISS, maneuvering rockets on Nauka malfunctioned and activated, slowly spinning the ISS. Ground control noticed it first and activated maneuvering rockets on other modules to halt the movement while the ISS crew was alerted and the malfunctioning rocket was shut down. The ISS was never in any danger and the unwanted spin lasted about 45 minutes. Until the source of the problem is found and fixed some, other planned missions to the station have been postponed. The problem appeared to be in the software. Because of the international nature of the ISS, Russia could not control the media coverage. That may have been why, at the end of 2021 a long (2,800 word) article appeared in MK, a state-sponsored publication, that detailed the many problems the Russian space program was undergoing, including some that had not previously been reported by anyone. That article seems to conclude that 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 Nauka 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 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 and that return and land for reuse, is going to cost the Russians even more business.
The long delayed Nauka module was supposed to be a clear win. Not yet and now everyone involved with the ISS is carefully monitoring Nauka, just in case. Skeptics will not be disappointed because the MK article revealed details that had not become known outside the space program, including new projects that were having a very difficult time reaching the starting line to try and become a success.
Most of the problems can be tracked back to Roscosmos, the state-owned corporation that manages the Russian space program. 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. Roscosmos currently provides work for about 250,000 people, including many contractors. It has been noted that the American space program does more with 30 percent fewer people. More importantly Roscosmos is still unable to offer competitive pay to attract and retain qualified personnel. This is 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 Cosmodromes (launch facilities). The most prominent example was the decade long effort to build the new Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East (Amur Province, just north of Manchuria). So far about 80 Roscosmos officials have been convicted for Vostochny-related corruption. President Putin, who ordered several rounds of corruption investigations, is frustrated by the fact that many of the replacements for jailed officials are 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 has been underway since 2011 and is still not finished. Costs have risen 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, and available for anyone to examine, records. “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.