Russia Reorganizes Space Program Again, Ostapenko Out – UPDATE

Russia Reorganizes Space Program Again, Ostapenko Out – UPDATE

January 22, 2015:  This article was updated throughout with additional information and quotes.  A correction also has been made.

The Russian government announced another restructuring of its space program management yesterday (January 21).  Most recently, responsibilities were split between the Russian federal space agency, Roscosmos, headed by Oleg Ostapenko, and the United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC, or ORKK using its Russian initials) headed by Igor Komarov.  Now the two parts will be combined and retain the name Roscosmos, but the new entity is described as a state corporation rather than an agency. Ostapenko is out.  Komarov will run the new entity and said today that he will develop a new draft federal space plan by May.

The Russian space sector has suffered an unusual string of launch failures since December 2010 resulting in several reorganizations and leadership changes in an attempt to fix the underlying problems.  The last restructuring, in October 2013, divided Roscosmos into two parts: the Roscosmos space agency and a newly created URSC.  Ostapenko was named Director of Roscosmos at that time, replacing Vladimir Popovkin, who had been tapped for the job two years earlier, replacing Anatoly Perminov.   Like Perminov, however, Popovkin was unable to end the string of launch failures and suffered the same fate.

Ostapenko was placed in charge of the space agency in October 2013, and URSC was formally created by presidential
decree two months later.  Komarov’s impending appointment as Director General of URSC was announced in October 2013, but he did not officially take the position until March 2014.  In between, he was a Deputy Director of Roscosmos.  Prior to October 2013 he was CEO of Russia’s AvtoVAZ, which manufactures automobiles.

That bifurcated management structure has lasted barely a year however.  Russia’s official news agency Itar-Tass reported on Wednesday that the two entities will recombine.  The name Roscosmos will be retained, but  it is described as a “state corporation,” that will “replace the federal space agency of the same name.”   Komarov won the job as CEO of the new Roscosmos.  Itar-Tass said Ostapenko will be offered an “executive position” in industry.

Komarov said today that “We are to submit to the government a draft federal space program and a program of development of Russian space center [sic] by May.”

What the reorganization means for relationships between NASA and Roscosmos, which represents Russia in the International Space Station (ISS) partnership, or
U.S. corporate deals with Russian aerospace companies is difficult to discern
at this point.  Russian space expert Anatoly Zak, editor of, said via email Wednesday evening that “even long time observers inside Russia are confused.”

Veteran Russian space analyst Bob Christy said via email today that he sees the formation of Roscosmos as a state corporation rather than an agency as a way to make it operate more like a business, less assured of government funding, but with greater flexibility to work with private industry to create viable new companies, including merging or separating functions “across the satellites/launchers divide.”

As noted, the changes began in response to Russian launch vehicle failures, but Russia’s top leadership has also complained about widespread corruption that reportedly has affected everything from the GLONASS navigation satellite system to construction of the new Vostochny launch site in Siberia.

At the Maryland Space Business Roundtable event Tuesday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was asked about the status of U.S.-Russian space cooperation given the tense geopolitical environment caused by Russia’s actions in Ukraine.  Bolden responded that he and Ostapenko had an excellent working relationship, agreeing that ISS must be kept out of the political fray.  He also emphasized the importance of personal relationships among Americans and Russians working on the ISS program to make “all this stuff work.”   It appears that at his level, at least, a new set of relationships will need to be established once more. This is the fourth Roscosmos director Bolden has worked with since becoming Administrator in 2009 (Perminov, Popovkin, Ostapenko and now Komarov).  

Other Roscomos officials may also be on their way out.  Itar-Tass cited Komarov today as saying that the new Roscosmos will have a smaller staff than the combined total of the previous Roscosmos and URSC. 

Although the launch failures have gotten a lot of attention, Russia also has many successful space launches.   In 2014, there were 31 successful space launches to orbit from Russian launch sites and one failure (of a Proton in May) according to data on Bob Christy’s website. (That number does not include launches of Russian rockets from Europe’s launch site in French Guiana — one of which placed the satellites into the wrong orbit — or the Sea Launch platform.  Also, one of the 31 “successes” placed the Ekspress AM-6 satellite into an incorrect orbit, but on-board engines are being used to raise it to its intended geostationary destination).

The successes in 2014 included launch of the new Angara 5 rocket with a test payload to geostationary orbit in December.   Angara is a new family of launch vehicles of varying capabilities. Russia also had a successful suborbital test launch of the smallest version, Angara 1, in July 2014 (not included in the 31 since it was not orbital).  Russia expects to replace its old Soviet-era rockets like Proton with different versions of Angara over the next several years.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article stated that the count of Russian launch successes in 2014 included Foton-M4 even though it was placed into an incorrect orbit, but the spacecraft was nonetheless able to complete its mission.  According to Christy, the launch vehicle operated properly, delivering the satellite into an elliptical orbit, but a communications failure prevented operation of a thruster on the spacecraft; that is why the orbit could not be circularized.  The earlier version also omitted mention of the problem with the Ekpress AM-6 satellite since the satellite is expected to be able to fulfill its mission (albeit with a shortened lifetime), but the Briz-M upper stage did underperform so should be noted as only a partial success.

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