MOSCOW — Amid a stalling economy and political tensions abroad, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged 50 billion rubles ($1.3 billion) to finish construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome in anticipation of a 2015 first flight from the complex.
In order to hasten completion of Vostochny, Putin has stripped oversight of the project from Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, and tapped Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to personally walk it to the finish line.
Putin has on several occasions expressed great interest in the realization of Russia’s new cosmodrome, located in the Amur region of Russia’s remote and underdeveloped far east. On Sept. 2, he stopped at the site while touring the region, and reaffirmed the government’s commitment to revitalizing the Russian space program, which has been beset by shoestring budgets and protracted brain drain since the early 1990s.
“We are investing heavily from the [federal] budget into this project,” Putin was quoted as saying in remarks published on the Kremlin website. “Over 100 billion rubles have been allocated since 2011, and another 50 billion should be allocated in 2015.”
This commitment reflects a recent trend of reinvestment in Russia’s position as a pre-eminent spacefaring power. Earlier this year, Roscosmos quietly released a 1.8-trillion-ruble budget hike to finance the modernization of decaying space infrastructure, a development that was overshadowed by Rogozin’s announcement the same day that Russia might pull out of the international space station program in 2020.
In mid-August, Roscosmos submitted a new budget proposal for government approval, although the specifics have not yet been made available.
“I would like to stress yet again that this is a major national project that will make it possible to launch spacecraft into outer space, to its farther reaches this time, and not depend on any launch sites outside the Russian Federation, although we will continue this line of work as well,” Putin said of the project.
Currently, most Russian space missions, including all flights to the international space station and all Proton missions, are launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Russia and Kazakstan have frequently been at odds over the years about the terms for using Baikonur.
Putin expressed disappointment in Vostochny’s continued construction delays, which he estimated have put the completion of the Soyuz 2 launchpad anywhere from 30 to 55 days behind schedule.
“In 2015, Vostochny should be ready to launch automatic spacecraft using medium class Soyuz-2 booster rockets, and by 2018, it should take on the implementation of piloted flights,” Putin said, noting that the 6,000 workers at the site are not sufficient to meet these target dates. As such, he proposed that the workforce be increased up to 15,000.
Later, in remarks carried by the Interfax news agency, Rogozin announced that Putin had stripped Roscosmos Director General Oleg Ostapenko of his managerial responsibilities for the Vostochny construction project and given it directly to the deputy prime minister — who is tasked with managing the space and defense industries.
Ostapenko took the helm at Roscosmos in 2013 after Vladimir Popovkin was sacked in part for construction delays at Vostochny.
Even prior to being assigned his new responsibility, Rogozin had taken a keen interest in the Vostochny project. In February he famously declared that he had installed cameras throughout the complex to monitor the workforce and root out “slackers” from his office in Moscow.
The Vostochny construction project is currently in “phase two,” which originally focused exclusively on building the Soyuz 2 launch facilities. Infrastructure to support Russia’s new Angara family of rockets — the first of which recently completed a suborbital test flight — is currently slated for phase three, scheduled to begin in 2016.
Ostapenko said Sept. 2 that Roscosmos wants to move the Angara complex to phase two, and begin construction this year. Roscosmos expects Vostochny to be ready to launch modular Angara vehicles by 2020. A third stage in the construction of the spaceport, located at 51.5 degrees north latitude, will be dedicated to building a next-generation heavy-lift vehicle for launches starting in 2030, Roscosmos said in a statement.
Staff writer Peter B. de Selding contributed to this story from Paris.