Guest Blog: Is Roscosmos Beginning to Crack Under the Strain?

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Two recent launch failures and sharp public criticism from leading government officials is putting the Russian space agency Roscosmos under a harsh spotlight. It’s also raising questions about whether the launch campaign the country is pursuing this year is too aggressive.

After having led the world with 31 launches last year, the Russians will increase that pace to 48 this year. That is a launch every 7.6 days. No other country in the world comes close to that figure; in 2010, the United States and China had 15 launches apiece. There were only 74 launches worldwide last year.

There are signs that this increased pace is beginning to affect the quality of Roscosmos’ work. In December, three expensive navigational satellites ended up in the Pacific after pad technicians filled the upper stage of a Proton with too much fuel. In February, the failure of an upper stage on a Rockot booster stranded a Russian military satellite in a useless orbit.

A furious Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sacked high-level officials at Roscomos and RSC Energia after the Proton failure and reprimanded space agency chief Anatoly Perminov. After the second failure, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov upbraided Roscosmos for “childish” errors and falling behind on the production of rockets and spacecraft. He said that space agency completed only five of 11 spacecraft it had planned to build last year.

The effectiveness of Roscosmos is no small matter. In addition to beginning commercial Soyuz operations from South America, the agency will take over sole responsibility for launching crews to the international space station once the U.S. space shuttle retires later this year. Russian officials have said this will be a major burden, one that will likely last until 2015 when the Americans field a replacement crew vehicle.

This increased burden comes at a time when Russia is pursuing a number of expensive high-profile space projects. These include the construction of new spaceport in the Far East, the testing of the Angara rocket, and the development of a new spacecraft and booster to replace the venerable Soyuz system.

Now, it bears mentioning that Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft and booster are extraordinary safe; there has not been a fatality with them in 40 years. The Russians are arguably the best in the world at launching payloads into space. It’s just that any organization can crack when put under too much pressure. I hope we don’t see that in the months and years ahead.

 

Doug Messier blogs about the space industry, especially space commercialization and tourism, at ParabolicArc.com. This piece is reprinted with permission fromParabolic Arc.