Russia's deputy prime minister just denounced his own nation's space agency as "childish" in the wake of errors and a canceled rocket program. Is it time for Russia to embrace new commercial space businesses, just like the U.S. has?
Sergei Ivanov spoke to Roskosmos today to officially rebuke the space agency (the Russian equivalent to NASA) for a succession of failures that have resulted in the wasting of billions of rubles and the loss of several key space assets.
In December a fuel miscalculation meant that three Glonass satellites (part of the constellation of navigation satellites that form Russia's own GPS-equivalent system) didn't make it to the correct orbit...or in fact into space for any period at all. The rocket, unable to power itself to the right altitude, tumbled back through the atmosphere and fell into the Pacific Ocean. The asset loss was placed at about $86 million, and Ivanov specified this figure.
Earlier in February, an error in the Rokot third-stage firing resulted in the Geo IL 2 military satellite aboard being inserted into the wrong orbit, rendering it useless for its intended purposes. The satellite has now been abandoned, denying the Russian military access to its services (whatever they may be). Today it was revealed that the entire Rokot class of light launchers, a three-stage system developed nationally from the RS-18 two-stage intercontinental strategic ballistic missile, has been grounded until an inquiry by government-led bodies has solved why the third stage misfired.
Ivanov noted "the recent failure with the Glonass satellites is a characteristic example. I won't go into details, this was a mistake, but a childish one and a mistake that had serious consequences." He also complained that Roskosmos had failed to produce enough spacecraft in 2010, completing just five out of the 11 it was supposed to produce. Six vehicles destined for civilian contracts also failed to launch last year, thanks to production delays. Ivanov also highlighted "systematic" delays in the space program that resulted in endless launch delays.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, the U.S. commercial space business is continuing to grow apace. Just the other day the entrants to the Google Lunar X-Prize were announced (coming from all over the world, but mainly relying on American money and technology to get themselves into orbit) and today the promising new enterprise XCOR revealed the first international partners it's signed up who are chasing research and educational payload missions aboard its sub-orbital Lynx vehicle—a similar system to Virgin Galactic's space plane, except Virgin's effort is primarily aimed at passenger transportation. JeffManber, chief exec of NanoRacks (one of XCOR's first tranche of customers, and an existing ISS payload customer) explained that the XCOR solution "is a solid first step for many of our customers to validate experiments that will go on to the Space Station. The ability to fly, test, learn, then adjust payloads on the ground and re-fly is extremely useful when perfecting a payload."
Meanwhile, Orbital Sciences is poised to launch its own Taurus rocket, carrying a satellite it was contracted to build for NASA dubbed Glory, which was designed to measure polluting aerosols in the upper atmosphere, and measure long-term variations in the sun's brightness.
With fee-paying passengers poised to fly aboard a number of sub-orbital vessels like Virgin's, and SpaceX in late stages of developing a capsule that can ferry cargo to the ISS in low Earth orbit (and ultimately to fly astronauts there too), the commercial space business in the U.S. is booming. Is it time for Russia to trim Roskosmos' wings, and try to encourage a new national commercial space industry? With the rise of China's space agency, and Iran and India continuing to push their own space programs, Russia may risk falling behind, and failing to live up to its impressive space heritage.
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