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The Future of the Russian Space Program
“Science Web”, Tokyo, June 2006, pp. 36-43 (in Japanese)

   The future of the Russian space program looks bright to Anatoliy Perminov, the military space forces commander who in 2004 doffed his uniform to take over Russia’s civil space program. With the US space program staggering, Russia’s ‘space power status’ seems to have risen symmetrically.
   But the newly civilianized Perminov’s efforts to swap his previous characteristic stern scowl for an amiable deal-maker’s youthful grin have been less successful, and therein lies the main challenge facing him and the program he now heads. Surprisingly, the real nature of Russia’s strengths and weaknesses in space provide generally unrecognized opportunities for the US space program and other national programs as well.
   As Russia’s federal bank account swells under the surge of high-priced oil exports, promises of higher space budgets have been easy to make. What is called the ‘Third Russian Space Budget” (the first was from 1996 to 2000, and the second finishes up this year) was unveiled in mid-2005.
   For the period 2006 to 2015, 305 billion rubles (about $10 billion) has been allocated, with the expectation that an additional 130 billion rubles will come from ‘off-budget sources’ (commercial sales). That’s about $400 million per year of foreign funding, or about 30% of the operating funds (by comparison, in 1996-2000, 60% of the space budget was foreign funding, and in the last five years, the figure has been about 30%).  These figures are inconsistent with other sources: Roskosmos deputy director Nikolay Moiseyev put the figure for 2004 at $700 million in foreign sales, but provided no breakdown of who paid how much for what.
   As a result, expectations have soared. The array of GLONASS navigation satellites may shift to longer-lived payloads that can slowly raise the depleted 24-slot constellation back towards full functionality in several years. New weather satellites can be launched (appallingly, Russia has NONE operational today). Domestic communications relays can be expanded, and surplus capacity may someday even be leased to foreign customers. New earth resources satellites in the ‘Monitor’ family may be able to compete with western commercial observation birds.
   Figures released by Perminov indicate that currently the existing Russian deployment of satellite constellations (involving 96 spacecraft, a quarter the size of the US contingent) meets only 26% of the defined needs of Russia. Funding of future replacement vehicles is supposed to raise that level to 51% by 2010 and to 90% by 2015. Anther Russian space official said that only 39 of 99 existing spacecraft were ‘fully operational’, while the rest were operating in degraded mode well beyond their design lifetimes. A third source but the number of currently operational Russian satellites at 33.
   Russia even intends to get back in the interplanetary probe business after a gap of more than a decade, with officially-approved plans for a robotic sample retrieval mission to Phobos, the inner martian moon, towards the end of this decade. And an astronomy satellite that was mostly built in the mid-1990s is being dusted off – and where necessary repaired – in concert with European science partners.
   Perminov has also been vigorously applying his military training to empire-building that would have made ancient Rome proud. The decade-long feud between the autonomous ‘Energiya Rocket and Space Corporation” (the ‘Korolyov Bureau’) and the federal space bureaucracy ended in involuntary annexation in early 2005 as the former director was ‘voted out’ in a smoothly-manipulated stockholders’ meeting. This was followed in August by the announcement that the firm (which builds and operates all Russian human space vehicles) would loose its ‘private’ status and become another branch of the central space agency. And late in 2005, government space officials engineered a second 'coup', replacing the head of the country's second-largest space corporation, the Khrunichev Bureau, with a more compliant bureaucrat of their choosing.
   Russian Minister of Economic Development and Trade Gherman Gref directed Roskosmos to restructure the entire Russian aerospace industry to enhance its competitiveness in the face of big slump in commercial satellite launchings. Federal space funding was “minimal”, he added, only enough to “support parity” [hold one’s own], and only four projects were receiving allocated federal appropriations: ISS operations, Soyuz booster modernization, Angara booster development, and applications satellite deployment.
   Perminov has been candid about one challenge, however, and silent about another. It is in these areas, not in bureaucratic centralization or in celebratory boasts of all the things they think they can do with all the money they’ve now been promised, where the future of the Russian space program will be determined.
   “The agency can successfully achieve its long-term goals only through international cooperation,” Perminov told ‘Voice of Russia’ on August 4, 2005. As an example, he expressed enthusiastic support for the proposed “$100-million-moon-ticket” project, explaining “it is a way to finance the future development of the space program.”  This only echoed a comment from Vladimir Putin at the opening of an aerospace show in Moscow in August: “We see the future of our air and space industry in cooperation with our partners in other countries.”
   In order to obtain the funding levels promised (and if the past is any guide, the promised federal outlays will be a lot lower and slower than announced), a lot of foreign partners are going to have to be talked out of a lot of their governments’ (or their corporations’) own revenues. We’ll return to specific examples shortly, but first we need to step back from the engineering to consider the big picture of the Russian space industry, especially its demographics.
   While the entire Russian society is facing a long-term demographic challenge unprecedented in any industrial nation, with a looming population crash and a falling health level, the space industry faces a magnified crisis because of unique historical accidents. Little public attention is still being paid to the fundamental question of just where the next generation of space workers will come from, and how well they will be trained for space challenges in decades to come.
   To a degree far beyond the experience in western and Asian space programs, Russia has a one-generation space workforce. The massive Space Race buildup at the time of Sputnik, Lunik, and Vostok harvested the cream of the graduates from technical institutes all across the USSR. They formed design and operational teams who worked together for decades, tightly knit and intimately familiar with the skills of other teams. Once the teams had accumulated experience on dozens of different programs, there was little need to train others – or to pass on their own knowledge.
   This worked fine for decades, with the dribble of new workers picking up their skills through shoulder-to-shoulder apprenticeships. Because of the long-term personnel stability, reference materials and “lessons learned” needed to be documented only on a highly individualized basis – and often tended to be jealously guarded, even encoded, as a means of insuring job security.
But now, attrition caused by retirements and deaths has become a crisis. The average age of Russian space workers in many institutes has surpassed the Russian male life expectancy of about 58. Overall, the average age is said to be 48, but they may be biased by the large numbers of military conscripts who serve at launch sites. “If there is no inflow of young specialists,” Russian Prime minister Mikhail Fradkov told reporters in July 2005, “everything could be lost, regardless of the money invested.”
   Recruitment remains hit-or-miss, with some organizations showing large influxes of young people, as long as the cash flow remains healthy. But to a very large extent, every new employee is a potential ex-employee to a degree rarely seen in the previous generation. In those days, there were few other jobs with the prestige or intellectual stimulation or access to exclusive privileges, but today that’s all changed, and young people know it. Enthusiasts and loyalists there are – often the children of current or past workers – but there just aren’t enough to even replace the bodies, much less the experienced minds, now hemorrhaging irretrievably from the industry.
   In order to earn the foreign capital needed to fund the program enough to attract a younger generation – in other words, to even continue to exist – the Russians MUST sell their proposed new space projects. The two main examples are the ‘Angara’ family of space boosters and the ‘Kliper’ manned spacecraft, neither of which are slated to receive any significant federal funding.
   Roskosmos official Aleksandr Chulkov told ‘Izvestia’ in August 2005 that funding problems continue to delay the new launch vehicle family. “The Angara rocket, however promising it may be, will not be ready in the next three years,” he admitted. By then, he warned, competition from comparable boosters in China, India, and Ukraine may have locked up the market. “Ukrainian rockets are serious competitors for Russian cosmonautics,” he pointed out with irony, “and it will be very difficult to take away the leading position which we ensured for them.”
   Aleksandr Medvedev, head of the Khrunichev space center that is building the boosters, told newsmen the situation was even worse. His corporation last year had to take out a $50 million bank loan to pay operating expenses. Meanwhile, construction delays at the Plesetsk space center north of Moscow have put off the first launch of the smallest version of the booster until 2007 at the earliest. As a result of the delays, paying customers such as Panamsat have cancelled launch contracts worth in aggregate up to $700 million in the past two years. They have switched to other rockets and may never come back to ‘Angara’, if it ever appears at all.
   As for Kliper, it too has been more showy style than serious substance. The latest word from Russia on their ‘Kliper’ spacecraft, to replace the “obsolescent’ Soyuz, is that the first test flight could occur by 2010 and the first manned flights the following year. Mockups and graphics are appearing all over. The test pilot for landing tests has been named. Project work is being portioned out to different Russian aerospace bureaus and being shopped around Europe (including Ukraine) and Japan and the US.
   What’s much less visible is that the development costs of the project don’t seem to appear in the new federal space budget. If the project is to be built, foreign partners are going to have to pay for it. As to how much money that would involve, Perminov was less cooperative: “That is confidential information,” he told a newspaper reporter in July 2005. But one man who has a good idea is Gay Severin, general designer of the Saturn Design Bureau that makes Russian spacesuits and other crew equipment, and he told reporters at the MAKS air show that Kliper could still fail “due to financial shortages”
   And although some journalists in late 2005 had written that “it’s all but official – Russian and Europe will soon embark on a cooperative effort to build a next-generation manned [spacecraft]”, significant skepticism remained even then. ‘This decision is totally dependent on the ESA ministerial conference set for early December [2005],” an experienced French journalist advised me privately. “This decision is far from being favorable for a cooperation for Klipper,” he predicted – correctly, as it turned out.
   Led by German space officials, he reported, both officials and the European public has lost all enthusiasm for human space flight in general. “When the Russian officials are declaring they are sure ESA will join,” he explained, “it is a very bad miscalculation and it could easily be counterproductive.” He concluded: “On ne vend pas la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué” -- “One doesn’t sell the bear skin before killing the bear.”
As the cynics predicted, the December meeting came and went without any European commitment to fund the Russian project. By early this year [2006], when Moscow was supposed to announce the results of a design competition for Kliper between several top Russian space bureaus, the scheduled decision was suddenly deferred indefinitely --the project is literally still not even on the drawing boards.
   One bearskin that the Russians HAVE sold is their new launch site for upgraded Soyuz boosters in Kourou, French Guyana. As part of a commercialization agreement for small and medium sized communications satellite launches, the Europeans will pay for the construction of the launch pad and will purchase booster and payload handling hardware from Moscow. While it is also feasible to launch manned vehicles (Soyuz and Kliper) from Kourou, any decision to do so would involve more European payments to Russia for the appropriate hardware.
Another profitable program will be the manufacture of Soyuz spacecraft, for support of larger crews aboard the ISS. Now that the United States has changed its law about funding Russian space industries, it will begin sending Russia enough money to double the production rate of these vehicles from two to four per year. Perhaps this new business agreement contributed to the Russian decision to forget about the 'Kliper' replacement vehicle for at least the next few years.
Another proposed Russian space vehicle that deserves more attention, and more non-Russian financial support, is called 'PAROM', the Russian word for ferryboat. Based on modified hardware from current systems, it would be a vehicle that attaches to any cargo launched into a low orbit, and the pushes that cargo over to the space station for attachment to it. The cargo can be supply canisters, or fuel tanks, or new science modules. The Parom vehicle can be refuelled and reused for many years -- if it is ever built. And it only will be built if foreign users come up with the money.
   An authentic evaluation of Russia’s actual space program situation – its strengths and shortcomings – is essential to charting US-Russian relationships in the future of the International Space Station (which could continue for decades) and in Russian roles in the ‘Vision for Space Exploration’ as an integrated partner, as a subsidiary contractor, or as a stand-alone supplement.
   First, it’s clear the Russians can make good space hardware – as of today. To a large degree, it is the same type of space hardware they have been making for decades – and by “they”, I mean the very same people doing it over and over again.
   But potential Western space partners need to insist on much more intimate insight into staffing trends at any Russian space facility they will be funding. The generational handover that has yet to begin in earnest cannot be put off much longer unless Moscow invents an immortality serum for its veteran engineers.
   Second, it’s clear Russia is irremediably addicted to foreign funding for all significant improvements to its space capabilities. There are really very few potential foreign clients with deep enough pockets to play this role, so they – not the Russians – usually hold the better hand (and the game is a lot more like poker than chess).
   The one exception that NASA has painted itself into a space corner over is near-term human access to orbit. Aleksey Krasnov, head of the Russian manned flight program, told Reuters in August that the sale price of an entire Soyuz launch – booster, spacecraft, and operations – would be $65 million.  This is a fair price, and the US government now has agreed to pay it.
   Third, the amazing robustness of the ISS (and its supporting partnerships) has demonstrated that the most reliable way to space reliability is not one integrated, unified spacecraft, but an amalgam of duplicative but mutually-supportive systems. They can be built into two ends of the same station, or – for flight beyond LEO – into formation-flying expeditions of independent vehicles and bases. This tells us that neither the Russian nor the American space program will survive alone, or do great things alone, no matter the expectations or intentions of their home governments. They and their foreign partners will continue to conduct space operations in teams.


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