Russian space program bedeviled by problems

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political analyst Andrei Kislyakov) - Sea Launch, the U.S.-Russian-Ukrainian-Norwegian consortium using a mobile sea platform for equatorial launches of commercial payloads on specialized Zenit-3SL rockets, has announced that its planned May 21 launch will be postponed indefinitely. This minor setback highlights major problems plaguing the Russian space program.

The launch was postponed because a similar rocket that lifted off from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan in late April failed to place an Israeli satellite into the intended 36,000-km geostationary orbit. The customer will now have to use the satellite's precious fuel reserve in order to attain the required orbit.

Sea Launch executives have therefore decided to suspend operations pending an investigation of the abortive Baikonur launch.

This is the latest in a series of failures involving the most advanced Russian launch vehicles and spacecraft. In September 2007, a Russian Proton-M rocket carrying a Japanese communications satellite exploded shortly after lift-off. This March, another Proton rocket carrying AMC-14, a communications satellite owned by SES AMERICOM, a New Jersey-based satellite operator, failed to reach its planned orbit.

The latter fiasco happened in spite of optimistic Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos) reports.

In October 2007 and April 2008, two manned Soyuz spacecraft, the pride of Russia's space program, carrying the first Malaysian astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, and the First Korean astronaut, Yi So-yeon, reentered the atmosphere on a steeper-than-usual trajectory, the so-called "ballistic descent".

Although Roskosmos is downplaying both incidents, Moscow is investigating all Soyuz crash landings.

All these setbacks point to a major crisis plaguing the Russian space program.

On April 12, Roskosmos chief Anatoly Perminov accounted for the mishaps by saying that over 80% of production equipment had expended its service life.

Russia has failed to retool its space-rocket industry in line with numerous federal programs. It turns out that 80% of production equipment may start malfunctioning anytime. The industry would face major problems if only one automatic transfer line stops operating.

There are few replacements for the rapidly aging workforce because young people are seeking better career opportunities. In the past three years, Energomash, the leading Russian rocket-engine manufacturer, has managed to reduce the average age of its workers from 53 to 49.

Russia may eventually fail in its ambitions to build new orbital stations for assembling inter-planetary spacecraft, launch inter-planetary missions, commercialize its Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS), conduct additional experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and develop new-generation launch vehicles.

The lack of funding is the main problem. Perminov said the space industry annually needed just under 0.2% of Russia's entire GDP to sustain operations, and that Russia would otherwise lose its status as a leading space power.

Russian GDP now totals 38 trillion rubles ($1.6 trillion); consequently, the national space program should receive just over $3 billion per year. This is not very much - the current NASA budget totals $17.6 billion.

It seems, however, that neither 0.2%, nor 22% of the Russian GDP would be enough to save the day, because the funds are being misspent.

Most of the Russian space budget is used to finance the ISS program. Vitaly Lopota, CEO of the Energia space rocket corporation, said 100 billion rubles ($4.2 billion) had been allocated for the station's Russian segment until 2015, but that another 120 million rubles ($5 billion) were needed.

It turns out that the ISS annually receives at least $600 million of Russia's $1.23 billion space budget.

GLONASS, an ambitious commercial venture, also requires sizeable funding.

Launches will continue to be delayed unless Moscow renounces ineffective politically motivated programs, and offers reliable and high-profit launch services instead. There is no other way to build up-to-date multi-role satellites and space rockets, buy state-of-the-art production equipment, and pay competitive wages to young and skilled workers.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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