Editorial | The Deal That Wasn’t a Deal

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The Russian Defense Ministry’s apparently unilateral decision to scuttle the planned launch of a European re-entry experiment aboard a converted submarine-launched ballistic missile was unfortunate, to say the least. Not only does it leave the European Space Agency (ESA) with no means to launch the European Experimental Reentry Testbed, or Expert, it represents yet another setback for industrywide efforts to find low-cost access to space for small payloads.

Expert, a sensor-laden module designed to be dropped to Earth from an altitude of 120 kilometers, was built at a cost of about 50 million euros ($65 million), much of that sum contributed by Italy. The mission is a precursor to ESA’s Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, a winged spaceplane designed to launch in 2014 aboard a European Vega rocket.

ESA thought it had secured a low-cost launch for Expert via a contract with Russia’s Makeyev State Rocket Center announced in late 2009. But the price, about 2 million euros, was too good to be true: According to officials at Expert prime contractor Thales Alenia Space, the Russian Defense Ministry, for reasons that aren’t clear, elected a while back to void the contract.

The ministry of course is well within its rights to decide how its excess missile assets are used, but the time to torpedo the ESA-Makeyev deal was before a contract was signed, not two years afterward. It seems highly unlikely that Russian defense officials were unaware of the deal as it was being negotiated — had that been the case, they likely would have canceled the contract soon after it was announced. If the ministry simply changed its mind about the desirability of launching non-Russian civilian payloads from its ballistic missile submarines, it still could have allowed Makeyev to honor this one contract.

The space industry can only hope that other contracts to launch satellites aboard converted Russian ballistic missiles are better insulated against capricious government oversight. If a recent Russian press report saying the government is rethinking its support for the Kosmotras venture, which markets a converted missile known as Dnepr, is correct, an already tough situation is going to get tougher.