Russia: From Space Programs to Space Strategy?

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In March, Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos submitted the draft of its “Strategy of Development of Space-Related Activities to 2030” to the Russian government. According to the draft, Russian space industry will, among other things:

  • Build satellites and spacecraft using exclusively domestically manufactured components by 2020.
  • Ensure that Russian orbital satellite clusters meet 95 percent of the nation’s civilian and military needs by 2030, compared with 40 percent in 2011.
  • Increase its share of the global space market to 10 percent by 2030, compared with only 0.5 percent in 2011.
  • Ensure up to three scientific mission launches a year, compared with less than one launch in two years for the period of 2006 to 2011.

The outer space exploration missions are no less ambitious. Roscosmos plans by 2030 to have a piloted flight to the Moon, including landing on its surface, and to send probes to Venus and Jupiter. By 2020, when the international space station will be removed from the orbit, Roscosmos, with foreign partners, would be working on deployment of research stations on Mars.

This is Russia’s first attempt to develop a space strategy per se. For the past two decades, Russian space officials have been developing “space programs” for certain periods of time, the pattern they inherited from the Soviet era. They have tried to develop a strategic vision, but have never reached the point of developing a viable, long-term balanced strategy that would link a nation’s space programs with national civilian and military interests and capabilities.

There are two basic elements that have prevented the emergence of a formalized space strategy in Russia.

The first is prioritization. Traditionally, all Russian space programs have listed the entire spectrum of all possible space-related activities — from manned flights to meteorological satellites — without priority ranking. All projects have been considered equally important for national interests. The logic behind this approach is that singling out some areas as official priority would mean that other areas would start losing their edge, efficiency and competitiveness. The Soviet, and then Russian, philosophy presumed that all areas of space exploration had to be current and competitive. However, assigning equal priority to dozens of the programs and projects in the list simply does not work out in real life because of a lack of resources. The more efficient way to strategically plan space activities would be to make a short list of programs that would have profound civil, commercial, and national security impacts.

The second issue has been securing necessary funding. Roscosmos experts tend to include in the federal space program long lists of activities without a clear and realistic vision of where funding for these programs will be coming from. Space officials have been using unjustifiably bold projections of federal funding, as well as external revenue generated by selling space-related services and hardware. However, funding shortages at the later stages of projects have been forcing space managers to unofficially prioritize certain projects and put other projects on hold. Quite clearly, for the past five years, the priority has been given to building space launch vehicles for manned and unmanned missions for both Russian and foreign customers.

Concomitantly, other activities scheduled in the current federal space program for 2006 to 2015 are significantly lagging behind as a demonstration of poor budget planning. For instance, one program envisaged launching 19 communication satellites through the end of 2009, but Roscosmos has been able to launch only one satellite as of early 2012. Nine satellites for Earth remote sensing, ecology, meteorology and emergency monitoring were originally scheduled to be launched in the same time period, and only one spacecraft has been launched as of early 2012. Two observatories for astrophysics research were scheduled for launch by the end of 2009, along with the sun research spacecraft; as of today, none of these plans has materialized.

Running individual space programs without a clear-cut strategy was not the best way to do the space business, and in the past couple of years that became obvious to an increasing number of Russian space industry managers, government officials and academicians.

Cosmonaut Yuri Baturin warns that “for some 15 or 20 years Russia will remain a space superpower, but then it will become a second-league space power if a long-term space strategy is not developed.”

Leading rocket scientist and academician Boris Chertok backs up this position. “First of all, our space sector needs to have a development strategy … general strategic guidelines. There has to be a clear understanding in what direction our space sector should go,” he argues. “Today we do not have that.”

The Russian government has also come to the realization of the necessity to adopt a comprehensive space strategy as a single official document. “Roscosmos has to strategize for decades ahead, otherwise it will lose not only its technological edge but also its cadres,” says Dmitri Rogozin, deputy prime minister in charge of defense and space industries.

In late December 2011, Rogozin gave Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin 50 days to prepare the first draft of Russia’s space strategy to 2030 and beyond.

Surprisingly, the prepared strategy draft looks more like a Soviet-style propagandistic paper outlining grandiose projections aiming at making Russia a world spacefaring leader rather than a well-thought-out and balanced set of priority activities that would contribute to social and economic development and national security. And it has the same inherent flaws of the “space programs” of the past. Dozens of projects — from building heavy cargo rockets to research of asteroids and comets — are listed without priority indication. In addition, the scientific and socioeconomic effect of some programs is questionable. Obviously, landing cosmonauts on the Moon in 2030 would be a repetition of what NASA did 60 years earlier rather than a technological breakthrough. Incidentally, calculations of some Russian space experts show that the Moon exploration program alone will require a threefold increase of the current Roscosmos budget. Realistically, it is very unlikely that the space agency with an annual budget 100 times less that the budget of NASA will be able to successfully and on schedule carry out all the projected activities.

It is too early to speculate what the final version of the “Strategy of Development of Space-Related Activities to 2030” will look like. Ideally, it has to be a document that demonstrates the Russian government’s intention to structuralize and prioritize space programs, streamline the Roscosmos budget, and reverse a dramatic loss of skilled professionals in the space sector. However, if the first draft is approved without serious revisions, the document will deserve the characterization given to the draft by leading Russian space academician Yuri Karash: “I am under the impression that the drafters of the strategy were guided by the same principle as the housewife making a vegetable soup and thinking, ‘I will put in all the veggies available, mix them, and hope that the soup will come out more or less decent.’”

 

Victor Zaborskiy is the founder of Special Trade Operations Consulting in Atlanta.