Hurdles to European Soyuz Were Higher than Expected

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PRAGUE, Czech Republic — The teams overseeing the introduction of Russia’s Soyuz rocket at Europe’s spaceport underestimated technology export restrictions on both the Russian and European sides and also misjudged how costly it would be to refurbish an existing satellite preparation facility compared with building a new one, the program’s project manager said.

Jean-Marc Astorg, who has overseen the project to create a Soyuz launch facility at Europe’s equatorial Guiana Space Center in French Guiana for several years on behalf of the French space agency, CNES, said export regulations have grown “worse and worse” since the Russian and French governments approved the project in late 2003.

In a presentation here during the 61st International Astronautical Congress, Astorg said the export regulations have not prevented any major transactions but have resulted in multiple delays. Project memos between Russian and European engineering teams could take weeks, and as long as a couple of months, to receive clearance to “export” the material from one team to another, he said.

“This is clearly a problem that was underevaluated,” Astorg said.

It also proved costly to refurbish an old facility located on the Ariane rocket launch zone, nearby the Soyuz launch pad, to prepare Soyuz payloads. The decision was made on the assumption it would be less expensive than to build a new facility. It turned out otherwise. Building a new structure at the Soyuz launch zone “could have been a better option,”Astorg said.

Despite these surprises, he said, many elements of the Soyuz project that were expected to be difficult have gone smoothly. A large effort was made to ensure that several hundred Russian Soyuz launch base construction workers, few speaking French or English, did not suffer from culture shock as they arrived for months-long stays from their homes in Samara, Russia.

Because of the technical nature of the work, Astorg said, having experienced translators has proved “a key factor.”

The Russian workers have adapted well to French Guiana, he said. A related issue — converting Russian work practices and technical standards into European norms for the spaceport’s construction — has similarly been less of a struggle than anticipated.

The biggest surprise in the project has been the multiple delays associated with construction, in Russia, of the mobile gantry, a 50-meter-tall, 800,000-kilogram structure that is wheeled into place to permit the installation of the satellite and the fairing onto the erected Soyuz at the launch pad.

Almost everything that can go wrong with a development project did go wrong with respect to the gantry, from financial and legal problems at the prime contractor in Russia to reassembly issues in French Guiana.

It took a year to complete construction in Russia before the structure was dismantled and shipped to French Guiana. On arrival, it took ground teams nine months, working day and night, to reassemble the gantry. The 300 metal beams that make up its skeletal structure were not easily identified.

The Soyuz project is supported by seven of the 18 member governments of the European Space Agency (ESA) including France. France has the dominant role and is paying 63 percent of the ESA charges, with the next-biggest contributor, Italy, at 8 percent, followed by Belgium at 6.5 percent.

With the launch pad now scheduled for completion and certification in early 2011 and an inaugural flight foreseen in March or April, the project is three years behind schedule and some 38 percent over its original budget of 344 million euros in 2002 financial conditions. The Arianespace commercial launch consortium of Evry, France, financed 121 million euros ($168 million) of that sum through a 10-year loan from the European Investment Bank, to be repaid from Soyuz launch revenue.

ESA governments provided two cash infusions totaling 132 million euros in 2008 and 2010. ESA Launcher Director Antonio Fabrizi said in a Sept. 28 interview that the agency is confident that it will need no further money for the Soyuz program before operations begin.