Popovkin Questions Permanently Occupied Space Stations, Not Sure Why Phobos-Grunt Failed

Popovkin Questions Permanently Occupied Space Stations, Not Sure Why Phobos-Grunt Failed

Russian space agency (Roscosmos) director Vladimir Popovkin suggested in a wide-ranging interview with a Russian newspaper today that small, single-purpose space stations with visiting crews may be preferable to the multi-purpose, permanently occupied International Space Station (ISS).  He also said that the Phobos-Grunt failure remains unexplained and hinted that foreign sabotage might have been responsible.

The interview was conducted by Izvestiya and published in Russian.   Google Translate was used to translate the text into English for this article. 

While acknowledging that the ISS partners are currently planning to operate ISS until at least 2020 and assessing the possibility of operating it until 2028, Popovkin said that “Permanent human presence in space is not always justified.”   His remarks suggest that shorter duration “visiting” missions focused on a specific set of objectives would be preferable. 

In response to the interviewer calling the venerable Soyuz (Union) spacecraft “outdated, uncomfortable,” Popovkin defended it because of its reliability.   Soyuz is used to take crews to and from the ISS.  The question arose in the context of asking Popovkin about plans to develop a new spacecraft that could accommodate six people instead of three, a concept that has been under discussion in Russia for many years.  Popovkin said that the new spacecraft could be available in the 2018-2020 time frame, adding that it requires a different launch vehicle.   The current Soyuz spacecraft is launched by a Soyuz FG rocket.  Popovkin mentioned two existing launch vehicles, Soyuz-2 (a different version of the Soyuz rocket) and Zenit as possibilities, but also brought up the Angara booster, another concept that has been discussed for many years.

In addition to a new crew spacecraft and rocket, Russia has been debating whether to create a new launch site in the eastern part of the country to substitute for some or all of the operations now conducted at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  When Baikonur was built, Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union.  Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Russia has had to lease Baikonur from Kazakhstan, now an independent country, for about $115 million per year.   Creating a new launch site on Russian soil to replace Baikonur is seen as advantageous from a geopolitical and financial standpoint, but funds have been scarce.  The new site, called Vostochny (formerly Svobodny), is a former ICBM base, but would require substantial investment to transition into a space launch site.   Popovkin said in the Izvestiya interview it would cost about 173 billion rubles (approximately $5.5 billion) through 2015.    Popovkin pointed out that Russia has been contemplating building a launch complex (named “Baiterek”) for Angara at Baikonur at a cost of $1.6 billion and that money has not yet been forthcoming.

Popovkin went on to address questions about a possible reorganization of the Russian space industry in the wake of an unusual number of launch failures in 2011, but said that more details would be available in the future.  Among the ideas being considered are horizontal rather than vertical integration of the industry, and moving some companies to the jurisdiction of the Federal Property Agency instead of Roscosmos.  Popovkin listed a number of other steps being taken in response to the failures.  One is creation of a “departmental quality control system” through which a Roscosmos representative can “monitor the manufacturing process of rocket and space technology.”  That person would not replace current inspectors, but could “intervene in any production process.”  Popovkin added that he approved the selection of a group of experts under the auspices of TSNIIMASH who are empowered to visit production facilities and ask questions on any issue.

One of the 2011 failures was the launch of the Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) mission that was intended to return to Earth a sample of the Martian moon Phobos.   Lofted into Earth orbit successfully, for unknown reasons its upper stage did not fire to send the probe to Mars.   Popovkin referred to funding problems, saying the spacecraft was “designed and created [with] a limited amount of funds” that added risk to the mission.   Delaying the launch to remedy problems, however, would have affected Russia’s European and Chinese partners in the project and increased costs.   If Phobos-Grunt could not be launched in 2011, he said, it would never have been launched with the resulting loss of the 5 billion rubles (approximately $157 million) that had been invested. 

He added that they still do not know why the upper stage failed to fire.  He noted that “frequent failures” of spacecraft occur when they are out of range of Russian tracking stations and stated that “I do not want to accuse anyone, but today there is a very powerful impact on the spacecraft, possible applications that cannot be ruled out.”   Russian space expert Anatoly Zak of RussianSpaceWeb.com interpreted that statement as Popovkin suggesting that a foreign power sabotaged the mission.   In November, a retired Russian lieutenant general, Nikolai Rodionov, asserted that an American radar in Alaska might have disabled the spacecraft, an accusation that U.S. space expert James Oberg labeled “moronic” since the ground track of Phobos-Grunt did not pass over the radar site.  In Popovkin’s case, he went on to talk about a Russian data relay satellite that was recently launched, the first of three that will expand Russia’s tracking capabilities, so he may have been making the case for improved Russian space tracking capabilities rather than supporting Rodionov, but his meaning is open to interpretation. 

Phobos-Grunt is expected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere sometime this week.

Popovkin is due to submit a report to Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin later this month on the problems in the Russian space program and industry.

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