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2 November 2015

Space program–2025

Will Russia be capable of cosmic exploits given the crisis and its political isolation?

In two months from now, Russia will embark on the implementation of the Federal Space Program 2016-2025 and, at the same time, will sum up the last decade of space exploration. This will take place against the backdrop of the worst relations with key partners in this field (the United States and the European Union) for the past quarter of a century, amidst the corruption scandals around the new Vostochny Cosmodrome, the merger of the Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos with the state-owned United Rocket and Space Corporation as well as economic problems. That being said, the space program keeps scientific and technical activity in Russia afloat and has great political and symbolic importance for society and the authorities. However, what Russia is going to do in outer space given the new conditions, what the changes in the industry are and how all of this will affect Russia’s foreign policy remains to be seen.

What has (not) been done and what is being planned?

The сivilian Federal Space Program 2006-2015 (FSP-2015) cost Russia more than 700 billion rubles at current prices (more than $21 billion given the annual average exchange rate). Other expenses:

  • Cost of GLONASS, a space-based satellite navigation system, nearly 200 billion rubles since 2002 under a separate program (28 on orbit satellites today, not including those out of service or lost);
  • Cost of the development of domestic radio electronics – approximately 6 billion rubles between 2008-2015 under Roscosmos;
  • Cost of launch sites – open budget data on the Vostochny Cosmodrome (program 2011-2015) and revamping of the Baikonur Cosmodrome as well as the Plesetsk Cosmodrome (program 2006-2015) in excess of 70 billion rubles, although total spending on the Vostochny Cosmodrome alone is many times higher and may reach 300-400 billion rubles.

It is clear that under these circumstances data on a military space program are almost incommensurable. Still, out of the 128 of Russia’s own operational satellites currently in orbit, 53 satellites are used and controlled by the military, and the GLONASS system will also eventually be transferred to the Ministry of Defense. Taking into account that between one third and a half of the funds of FSP-2015 are spent on the ISS (International Space Station) program, while 21 Roscosmos satellites are orbiting along with 2 international scientific satellites it is involved in, annual expenditure on space by the military is estimated at dozens of billions of rubles. And this sum will only increase with GLONASS.

The main problem with FSP-2015 is the failure of its scientific element. Two missions to the Moon and one to Venus, launches of space observatories ‘Spektr-RG’, ‘Millimetron’ and ‘Ultraviolet’, an Interheliozond probe for the study of the Sun from the solar vicinity, 3 out of 5 small satellites for fundamental studies, research satellites to study the magnetosphere of the Earth – everything has been postponed for a future date. The launch of a probe to study Phobos and the operation of a telescope for studying the Sun ended in failure. Also, three new (scientific, nodal and power) modules have not been built in time for the Russian segment of the ISS. And a new manned spacecraft has not been constructed either.

As a result, the new space program 2016-2025 (FSP-2025) incorporates everything which could not be achieved over the last decade, but at a much higher price. According to the most recent data, its implementation requires 1.5 trillion rubles (initially 2.5 trillion was requested). Apart from the above-mentioned projects, this amount includes the cost of the ISS services, an upgrade of civilian satellites, bringing the ‘Angara’ family of space-launch vehicles up to standard as well as political ambitions associated with manned flights to the Moon. In other words, FSP-2025 constitutes error correction, although the cause of the errors has been wrongly identified.

A new state corporation

In July 2015, a decision was made to merge the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and the United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC), established in 2014, into the Roscosmos state corporation which will take over the function of the space agency and management of this sector. In fact, in response to the delays and break-downs, the authorities, who see the cause in deficient management, are reviving the Soviet model.

The Russian space industry re-entered into state ownership back in the 2000’s although the heads of companies and holdings retained their autonomy and were actively involved in bureaucratic wranglings with Roscosmos. With the emergence of the URSC, the operation of the special agency became senseless: in the existing hierarchy, the role of director of the agency is incomparable with the head and de facto manager of the budgetary funds in the sector which employs 200,000 people.

The corporation is headed by a man who has a reputation as a crisis manager and who, at the same time, is a close associate of Sergei Chemezov (the Rostec state corporation) – Igor Komarov. The irony of the situation is that the main problem of the Russian space industry lies in its inability to operate under market conditions. Here, the managers are responsible for obtaining budgetary funding and overcoming other companies in the administrative race.

The Roscosmos state corporation – whose only incentive will be to follow the instructions of the political leadership – is capable of forcing (!) its member companies to implement major projects under FSP-2025, perhaps reducing the rate of breakdowns and closing down the most inefficient businesses. However, this will not lead to fundamental changes – the industry will not become market-oriented or flexible and will constantly require more and more substantial public cash injections. As a reference: the cost of Russian satellites produced in 2014 comprised 5% of global output whereas the number of new orders for Russian launch services had been decreasing for 6 consecutive years (from 14 in 2009 to 1 in 2014).

All in all, this boils down to maintaining the policy of preserving the space industry against the backdrop of an inability to solve its key problems within the country’s existing political and economic system.

The paradox of the confrontation with the West

At first glance, Russian aggression against Ukraine has not affected cooperation between Russia and the USA and the EU in outer space. NASA continues to use Moscow’s services in terms of the delivery of astronauts and loads to the ISS. The US Orbital ATK company buys Russian RD-181 rocket engines for its Antares launch vehicle just as it was purchasing NK-33 engines, also Russian-built. Of course, the Americans intend to phase-out RD-180 engines and replace them with Atlas V launch vehicles used to put military satellites into orbit. Still, they are preparing to purchase nine pieces in 2016. Russian launch vehicles continue to put foreign satellites into orbit, including Soyuz-2 carrier rockets from the launch site in French Guiana. Thus, cooperation with Russia in outer space has not been scaled down yet but it would be extremely optimistic to expect new projects to be announced.

Russia, however, has already faced a serious problem: the USA, EU and Japan have stopped selling satellites and their components to Russia since they are considered dual-purpose technology. In addition, the severance of ties with Ukraine is much more painful than it may seem: Ukrainian producers took part in the manufacturing of some of the rockets, spacecraft control systems and they even supplied Russia with a military satellite in 2007.

As a result, Moscow opted for self-sufficiency, which generates further expense but does not guarantee efficiency. It is likely that an attempt will be made to purchase the missing components from China but this may well result in political costs. Besides, China itself buys its most advanced equipment from the USA and Europe.

At the end of the day, any attempt to rely solely on your own resources as far as the space industry goes severely limits the possibilities and prospects of scientific and economic achievements. The Russian authorities do realize that and they are, therefore, trying to maintain cooperation with the West by tooth and nail. They do not even refrain from blackmail – this is in reference to the idea of separating Russian-built modules and reassembling them into a Russia only orbital space station.

But in fact, Moscow was extremely interested in extending the operation of the ISS until 2024 and it will ultimately opt for a new extension – until 2028. It is also noteworthy that American and European orders for Russian rockets and engines allow businesses to obtain additional funds to cover inflated expenses.

Power above all

A number of conclusions stem from the above:

  • Russian space activity will continue due to inertia; all efforts will be concentrated on a manned program and the maintenance of a satellite constellation;
  • Russia's share in the global space economy will gradually diminish;
  • Even if, by some miracle, relations between Russia and the West improve in the coming years, Russia’s fully-fledged participation in ambitious American and European space projects is unlikely;
  • Russia will try to strengthen space cooperation with India, South Korea, China, Iran, Egypt, Latin American countries and others. However, the priority of political and image-related pursuits will have a negative impact on the scientific and economic value of such projects.

All in all, Russia’s desire to use space as a PR tool for the authorities will outweigh the need for modernization. Given such an approach, even a manned flight around the Moon in a new spacecraft launched in 2025 from the Vostochny Cosmodrome devoid of deeper purpose is possible. The only practical effect being that Russia will be in a stronger position when it comes to talks with Kazakhstan, since Moscow will no longer depend on the Baikonur space launch site. 

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