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Wheels of progress

Squeaky wheels of progress: The Russian space industry struggled to reform itself at the beginning of the 21 century.

Previous chapter: Russian space program during the 2000s

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The Russian space industry at the turn of the 21 century

As of 2010, the Russian rocket and space industry included from 92 to 112 organizations which employed 232-250 thousand people. (472) The overall outlook for the space sector presented a complex picture. Following a deep slump of the 1990s and a funding boost in the 2000s, Russia was finally expected to get a return on its investments in space. The first spacecraft systems whose development had been initiated in the post-Soviet period were finally reaching the launch pad.

Also thanks to government subsidies, the space industry had weathered the economic crisis of 2008 relatively unscathed. During 2006-2010, the increase in manufacturing output across the space industry was reported to be twice as high as in other fields of the Russian economy. However despite improved funding, reality proved that money couldn't buy everything. Typically for the Russian economy, the nation's space sector had continued suffering from an aging work force, "brain drain" and inefficiency as it was entering the second decade of the 21st century.

Industry-wide problems

At the end of 2000s, the low quality of electronic components used by the Russian space industry became a topic of discussion at the collegiate council of the Russian space agency, chaired by Vice Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. According to Rossiskaya Gazeta, Ivanov blamed the faulty certification process within the agency for the loss or crippling of major Russian satellites, including Monitor-E, KazSat-1 and Persona. (326)

In September 2009, Gennady Raikunov, Director General of TsNIIMash, Russia’s chief space technology certification center, said that the system of quality control in the rocket and space industry had decayed and had to be drastically reformed, the Interfax news agency reported. "Organizational and methodical management of quality and reliability control divisions within the rocket and space industries have been broken and these divisions themselves have declined," Raikunov said at the round table on the problems of the space industry in the Russian Duma (parliament).

Raikunov admitted that the problem manifested itself in an increased number of failures during flight tests and the operational use of space technology. According to Raikunov, most of these failures stemmed from the lack of ground testing and too much reliance on calculations over full-scale testing. At the same time, the entire test infrastructure of the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, was morally and physically obsolete, Raikunov said. "It is necessary to restore industry-wide, and (in cooperation with the Ministry of Defense), an inter-agency system of information (exchange) on the reliability and technical state of rocket and space technology,” Raikunov said. (460)

A string of failures

The actual flight record of Russian satellites during the 2000s did confirm the concerns expressed by space officials. At the beginning of December 2009, the Koronas-Foton satellite, Russia's only dedicated science spacecraft in orbit, failed, and all efforts to restore it were fruitless. A defective electric battery turned out to be the culprit. The satellite was launched 10 months before, with great hopes for the revival of the country’s space science program. This was the latest, but not the last, in a string of in-space failures of Russian satellites in the past few years:

Liana: A new-generation electronic intelligence satellite had to be removed from the launch pad due to serious technical problems onboard, just days before a scheduled launch in July 2009. Its eventual launch in November 2009 was successful, despite initial problems in orbit with the deployment of sensor-carrying panels.

Meteor-M No. 1: The weather satellite reached orbit successfully on Sept. 17, 2009, however a key instrument, scanning the Earth surface in the infra-red wavelength, was unable to function properly due to the failure of the cooling system needed to maintain its temperature below 100K. The problem also affected the launch schedule of the Elektro-L spacecraft, which used a similar device for meteorological observations.

Sterkh 1 and 2: The two small new-generation satellites for search and rescue navigation were promised to function for five years. However they were built far behind schedule, due to production test failures of their onboard equipment. The first satellite was launched on July 21, 2009, and, reportedly, experienced problems soon after launch. Due to the wrong polarity in the flight control system, the satellite was turning its solar panels away from the Sun. On Sept. 17, 2009, Sterkh-2 was launched and it also ran into trouble. Failure of the satellite's gravitational boom to deploy prevented proper attitude control, likely rendering it useless.

Meridian-1: A new-generation satellite for military communications which was launched on Dec. 24, 2006, it failed before the end of its projected life span, the head of its manufacturer ISS Reshetnev told Russian media at the beginning of 2009. He blamed a collision with space junk for the premature demise of the spacecraft, a reason often used in the industry when a technical failure could not be pinpointed.

Persona: A new-generation reconnaissance satellite, with a projected life span of seven years, had apparently experienced a major malfunction shortly after entering orbit on July 26, 2008, official Russian sources said at the beginning of 2009. The investigation commission reportedly blamed low-quality avionics onboard the spacecraft, which were degraded unexpectedly by space radiation. According to unofficial reports, following the failure, ground control was able to communicate with the spacecraft and receive its imagery, however the satellite apparently remained crippled.

KazSat-1: The Russian-built satellite for the government of Kazakhstan was launched on June 18, 2006, with a projected life span of 12 years. It experienced problems first on April 17, 2008, and completely stopped communicating with the ground on November 26 of the same year.

Mozhaets-5: An experimental satellite launched on Oct. 27, 2005, it failed to separate from the upper stage of the Kosmos-3 launch vehicle.

Monitor-E: An experimental Earth-watching satellite built by GKNPTs Khrunichev it was crippled in orbit by an onboard failure shortly after its launch on Aug. 26, 2005.

Tatyana-1 launched in 2005 and was lost in 2007, before the end of its guaranteed life span. A collision with space junk was again declared to be the culprit.

Tatyana-2, launched at the end of 2009, failed at the beginning of 2010.

Ugatusat: failed shortly after its launch.

Belka was lost in failure of the Dnepr rocket.

Sich-1M was left in a wrong orbit by a failure of the Tsyklon-3 rocket.

Meridian-2 failed after reaching orbit.

Low quality of operational satellites

Even when Russian science and application satellites do make it into orbit successfully, the quality of information they deliver is often below the standards required by end users. In September 2011, Aleksandr Frolov, the head of Rosgidromet, the nation's weather forecasting agency, slammed Roskosmos for delivering substandard satellite data. According to Frolov, two Russian remote-sensing satellites -- Meteor-M1 and Elektro-L -- carried instruments, which did not meet promised specifications and provided little useful data. Frolov's interview with journalists came on the heels of several high-profile launch failures of 2011 and his rare critique of the space industry was quoted by Russia's official news agencies -- ITAR-TASS and RIA Novosti. (515)

The problem traced its roots back to the Soviet period, when the same government body overseeing rocket industry -- Ministry of General Machine Building, MOM -- played two roles simultaneously: ordering and developing spacecraft. Although the Russian spacecraft were often modeled after their Western equivalents, industrial enterprises rarely faced "life-and-death" pressure of competition inside the country, let alone from foreign developers. As a result, the quality of Russian avionics and other crucial components onboard application and science spacecraft had never been particularly high.

This system remained largely unchanged following the switch to the "market" economy and the formation of the Russian space agency, Roskosmos. End users, such as Rosgidromet or science centers, still have little say in what exactly each spacecraft should deliver and how it should operate. Moreover, top space officials often move back and forth between Roskosmos and the industry in the course of their careers and maintain cozy relations with their peers at the agency, which certifies spacecraft for flight and single-handedly declares civilian space systems fit for operational service. As of 2011, Rosgidromet was still struggling to obtain a more important role in the development of civilian remote-sensing satellites. Even then, the Russian government was not prepared to give the end user a primary role in defining technical requirements for future spacecraft. Rosgidromet could only hope to participate in the formation of the technical assignments for the developers of instruments onboard satellites and their following operation in orbit.

Rebuilding contractors network

At least some of the quality control problems in Russian space technology stemmed from the disintegration of the decades-old contractor relationships between the main system integrators and their suppliers. This network was formed during the Soviet period and had to be re-established after the disintegration of the USSR. Many contractors were left struggling in Ukraine and in other newly independent republics, while others collapsed altogether due to lack of orders during the 1990s. Newly formed sub-contractors often had little experience in spacecraft development and made costly mistakes, delaying projects. Even worse, some organizations turned out to be frauds.

Foreign components

As a result of a shrinking subcontractor base, the Russian space industry had gradually lost the capability to produce many spacecraft components. At the beginning of 2011, Anatoly Perminov told reporters that Russian spacecraft consisted of up to 70-80 percent imported components. Due to the strategic importance of space technology, the Russian government saw a complete top-to-bottom independence in spacecraft development as a critical national security issue. Perminov promised investments into efforts to achieve independence in the development of avionics for spacecraft. One of seven integrated entities, which had being formed within the latest restructuring of the space industry, would be dedicated to the development of avionics, Perminov said. (461)

Aging personnel, brain drain, low salaries

After being one of the most prestigious sectors of the Soviet economy, the space industry lost much of its luster for the young work force entering the job market during the 1990s. As a result, space companies struggled to maintain the high professional qualification of their workers and engineers.

One of the critical factors which led to the loss of the qualified personnel was low wages within the industry. Although the times when workers were going without pay for months had been overcome, rocket companies still lagged behind other sectors of the Russian economy in pay rates. According to the report by the Tsiolkovsky Academy of Astronautics, the average monthly pay within the space industry was 6,108 rubles per month. For comparison, gas producers would pay their employees on average 13,500 rubles per month, while the oil industry would compensate its workers with 24,800 rubles. The situation started improving slowly in the first decade of the 21st century.

In 2008, the average salary at TsSKB Progress was reported to be 13,000 rubles. A medium-level technician at NPO Lavochkin would earn 9,000-12,000 rubles per month. A high-level engineer with experience would be reportedly offered 16,000 - 20,000 rubles. During a work assignment in Baikonur, a worker would reportedly earn $55 a day, while their French counterpart earned 800 Euro!

The Russian space industry made at least some attempts to attract former employees lost in the previous decade. In 2009, a poster on the online forum of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine quoted job postings at the Proton-PM propulsion development company in the city of Perm, offering re-training and retaining of an uninterrupted work experience -- an important incentive for former workers. The lowest machinist salaries were hovering around 25,000 rubles per month.

Industry consolidation

To reshape the industry for the post-Cold War era, Roskosmos launched a major reorganization and consolidation effort. However, the original idea to create a single state-own corporation was dropped in favor of multiple "integrated entities," where the Kremlin would still hold a majority stake. By the end of 2009, Roskosmos oversaw two types of organizations:

OAO-type organizations (limited liability companies):

  • RKK Energia (manned spacecraft);
  • VPK NPO Mashinostroenia (cruise missiles);
  • ISS Reshetnev (application satellites);
  • Russian Corporation RKP IS (raketno-kosmicheskogo priborostroeniya i informatsionykh system) (avionics);
  • OAO Makeev state center (submarine-based ballistic missiles);

FGUP-type organizations (federal enterprises):

  • GKNPTs Khrunichev (launch vehicles and spacecraft);
  • Pilyugin NPTs AP (avionics);
  • GNPRKTs TsKB Progress (launch vehicles and spacecraft);
  • TsENKI (launch infrastructure);
  • NPO Lavochkin (military and scientific spacecraft);

In addition, Roskosmos oversaw a fully state-owned NITs RKP test center.

Several additional companies were still under formation as of February 2010:

  • OAO Kometa – Special-purpose space systems corporation;
  • OAO NPK Systems of high-precision instruments;
  • OAO NPK Iosifyan Remote-sensing space systems, information control and electromechanical complexes;
  • OAO Corporation Moscow - Thermal Technology Institute, MIT;

During the 2000s, the larger and financially healthier companies were in the process of absorbing their former subcontractors, which no longer had enough business to survive on their own. With the approval of a presidential decree on Feb. 3, 2007, GKNPTs Khrunichev absorbed the Voronezh mechanical plant, the Isaev chemical machine building design bureau, the Dlina Moscow enterprise for hardware assembly and PO Polyot. In July 2008, Khrunichev also acquired a majority stake in the Proton-PM propulsion developer in the city of Perm. In August 2009, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree giving Khrunichev the complete ownership of the KB Khimmash design bureau in Voronezh.

Among especially controversial mergers was RKK Energia's takeover of NPO Energomash, Russia's leading developer of rocket engines. Leaders at NPO Energomash reportedly resisted the move, since it could hamper the company's competitiveness in bids with NPO Energia's rivals in the industry. Potentially, NPO Energomash could lose its ability to innovate, said critics of the merger. RKK Energia was taking over NPO Energomash in parallel with its effort to acquire majority stake in the bankrupt Sea Launch venture. RKK Energia reportedly took over Sea Launch for a penny on the dollar. By taking over Energomash, RKK Energia could also control the price of engines, the key components of the Zenit rocket used by the Sea Launch venture. To complete a quick takeover of Energomash, RKK Energia reportedly enlisted help of Aleksandr Beglov, deputy chief of presidential administration in Kremlin, who held the chairman seat on the board of directors at RKK Energia. This was a controversial position in itself, reflected in the presidential ban, which prohibited high government officials from joining boards of directors of state-own corporations. In October 2011, Beglov was replaced on the board of directors at RKK Energia with Mikhail Kovalchuk, the director of Kurchatov Institute, NITsKI.

Next chapter: Russian space industry in 2010s


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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: November 26, 2012

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: May 20, 2011

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Anatoly Perminov (left), who led Roskosmos since mid-2000s, left his post in 2011. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak


Leaders of two major Russian rocket companies: Aleksandr Kirilin of TsSKB Progress (center) and Vladimir Nesterov of GKNPTs Khrunichev (right) during the opening of the Paris Air and Space Show on June 15, 2009. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak











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