Sunday, August 30, 2015

Russia’s Space Plans More Fantasy Than Fact

          By Glen Strom

When is a space announcement not worth a plugged kopek? When it’s about Russia’s space plans.

According to Russian journalist Anatoly Zak, writing on the Russian Space Web industry page,  it is sometimes "more dangerous for Russian space officials to declare the spacecraft not fit for launch than to let it fail in spaceAdmitting problems before launch could be a career suicide, while problems in orbit, if they do happen, could be always blamed on external factors, such as meteoroids, space junk, American secret weapons, or on scapegoats at the bottom of the industrial food chain, such as computer programmers, welders or propellant-loading technicians." Although this tendency is not unique to the Russian space program, other problems, including a costly effort to replace Ukrainian and Western components lost to sanctions imposed during the Ukraine crisis, multiple industry restructurings and even an economic turf war waged between the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and the United Rocket and Space Corporation (ORKK), which included grandiose and contradictory proposals from both organizations, have sapped the strength of the Russian space industry. Graphic c/o Rossiskiskiy Kosmos. Translation c/o Russian Space Web

The December 18th, 2014 blog post “Roscosmos is Assessing its Future Programs,” outlined some of Russia’s ambitious space plans: a low-orbit space station, a high-orbit space station, a super heavy-lift Moon rocket, nuclear space tugs and a Moon base.

Ah yes, the Moon base, Russia’s pet fixation. Back in 2012 Russia wanted to team up with the United States and Europe to build a research colony on the Moon. Earlier this year the Russians wanted to buddy up with the Chinese on the Moon base idea.

It seems that the only country Russia hasn’t yet considered as a Moon base partner is the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.

Russia released its newest space plan for 2016-2025 last April 23rd. As reported in the May 2nd, 2015 SpaceFlight Insider post “Russia’s new space program: Search for extraterrestrial life amid budget cuts,” the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, wants to search for extraterrestrial life and send satellites to the Moon and Mars. Those Moon landing plans are still in there, too.

Roscosmos has one small problem—their budget has been cut by 35%, which will affect some of those projects including that Moon rocket.

All of the grand plans announced over the past few years are more fantasy than fact. A song from the 1972 movie musical “Cabaret” sums up why. The song is called “Money” and it's about how that specific commodity helps to make the world go around. 

Money also makes space programs go ‘round. That’s why you can disregard these announcements. Russia doesn’t have the money.

What’s causing Russia’s monetary grief? For one thing, sticky fingers.

Some comrades have taken the words of the song to heart...just not in a state-approved way. A Moscow Times story from July 27, 2015 “$126 Million Stolen From Russian Vostochny Cosmodrome Project - Prosecutor General,” says contractors at the site of the new spaceport in Russia’s Far East have skimmed 7.5Bln rubles ($150Mln CDN) despite warnings from Russian President Vladimir Putin that they were being watched.

One of those enterprising nouveau capitalists, accused of swiping 4Mln rubles ($807,000 CDN), was highlighted in The June 3rd, 2015 Siberian Times article “Got Him! Director Accused of Fraud at New Spaceport is Detained in Belarus.” He was arrested while driving his diamond-encrusted Mercedes. (Is driving around in a bejeweled Mercedes chic, gauche or just “hey, investigate me” dumb?)

You just can't make this sort of stuff up. This screenshot from a local police video shows an unnamed 45-year-old Georgian national being arrested in Belarus in June 2015, while driving a "diamond encrusted" Mercedes. The suspect is a accused of embezzling funds for the construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome from the Russian government.  Photo c/o social media.

Even without the embezzling, the Vostochny facility has problems. The August 24, 2015 Sputnik International article “First Manned Launch From Russia's Vostochny Cosmodrome Delayed Until 2025 quoted a Roscosmos official as saying the first crewed launch at the Cosmodrome has been pushed back from 2018 to 2025. They’ve decided to wait for the new Angara rocket rather than using the site for the older Soyuz.

It’s the same Angara rocket that’s been under development since the early 1990s and has been delayed because guessed it—money, money, money.

But it took more than creative skimming to put Russia in this mess.

The key to the Russian ability to compete in space, or anywhere else for that matter, is the strength of the Russian economy. As outlined in this December 22nd, 2014 CNN report "Russia's economy is on the brink of collapse," the economy was damaged by a series of political and economic hits beginning in early 2014 which culminated in the June 2014 collapse of international oil prices. According to the report, Russian citizens have responded to the crisis by rushing to buy "foreign imported goods," which would be more likely to maintain value as the local currency inflated. No doubt, this would explain all those locally owned but foreign built and diamond encrusted luxury vehicles. Video c/o CNN.

According to the July 23, 2015 Telegraph article, “Oil and Gas Crunch Pushes Russia Closer to Fiscal Crisis,” the big problem is the resource-based Russian economy.

Revenues from oil and gas are dropping due to reduced demand from Europe. Foreign partners have pulled back from development projects because of the political sanctions over Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

Russia made a big bet on the oil and gas industry. They let their manufacturing base erode and failed to develop a high tech industry. They have nothing to pick up the slack due to falling oil prices. 

A snapshot of the Russian economy covering 2014 with estimates for 2015, which was compiled using data from the Russian Ministry of Finance. What will 2016 be like? Graphic c/o Stratfor.

Some analysts say there is some good news. The July 28th, 2015 Moscow Times article “Is the Worst of Russia's Economic Crisis Over?” has indicated that the economic decline may have bottomed out.

Don’t break out the vodka just yet, though. The prognosis is “cloudy” because the measures taken—the government devalued the ruble and increased spending to prop up the economy—were used twice before during recessions. The benefits in each case were short-lived.

The story goes on to say that this strategy has prevented the Russian economy from diversifying, which maintains the status quo and leads to a new financial crisis.

Russia’s economic problems are starving their exploration and commercial space programs of the money they need, putting Russia further behind other space nations.

Glen Strom.
Money makes the world, and space programs, go ‘round. It could be that the only spinning the Russian space program will be doing is spinning its wheels.
Glen Strom is a freelance writer and editor with a background in business and technical writing. He's also the editor of The Gazette Weekly, the newsletter of the Canadian Space Society.


  1. With the current plan to develop the Russian Far East with China (pending funding) I wonder if that will be another iteration of the Ghost Cities that China has built. Apartments that nobody can afford to buy or live in.
    What is the industrial or manufacturing magnet for the area? Perhaps Migrants can go there from Syria?


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