Zak: Management Shakeup in Russian Space Could Start Today

Zak: Management Shakeup in Russian Space Could Start Today

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made it clear over the weekend that he wants to punish those responsible for the likely failure of Phobos-Grunt.   Anatoly Zak at reports that “the latest round of purges” at Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, “was expected to start as soon as Monday, November 28.”

Zak, a widely respected Russian space analyst who lives in the United States, is highly critical of Medvedev’s comments:  “With his trivialization of Stalin’s crimes in a pre-election political theater, Medvedev played a dangerous game of appeasing those who saw the unspeakable terror of the Soviet past as a viable future for Russia…. In the 1930s, Stalin’s henchmen nearly decimated the nascent Soviet rocket development program, along with the rest of the Soviet society. Leaders of the Rocket Research Institute, RNII, were murdered and the organization’s leading engineers, Sergei Korolev and Valentin Glushko, lost years of their lives in prisons.” 

The current head of Roscosmos, Vladimir Popovkin, has been on the job only a few months.  A retired Army general, he replaced Gen. Anatoly Perminov who was forced into retirement in April after a December 2010 Proton launch failure that doomed three GLONASS navigation satellites.  The GLONASS system, similar to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS), is a top priority at the highest levels of the Russian government and it would have gotten back up to full operational capability — 24 operational satellites — with that launch.   That milestone was ultimately achieved last month.  The Russians want to have 30 operational satellites on orbit, and another was launched today.

Russia has suffered a series of embarrassing rocket failures in the past year and some wonder if that reflects deeper problems in the Russian aerospace industry.  In a speech to the Russian State Duma (its lower house of Parliament) in October, Popovkin reportedly acknowledged a “deep rooted crisis” caused by “outdated regulations,” “fixed asset depreciation,” a “technology gap,” and an aging aerospace workforce.  He added that he planned to make major changes at Khrunichev, which manufactures Proton and other Russian launch vehicles.

Khrunichev did not build either Phobos-Grunt or the Fregat upper stage that apparently malfunctioned, however.  Both are built by NPO Lavochkin, which undoubtedly is under scrutiny for this latest failure.  Hopes have dimmed that the spacecraft can be rescued.

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