Confusion in Russia’s space program

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Today Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin appeared on Russian television where he tried to explain the government’s plans for the Russian space program.

He failed, miserably.

First he denied reports from yesterday that the government has cancelled all Moon missions in its still not-yet-finalized proposed ten-year plan for 2015 to 2025.

“We are not dropping the lunar program. Rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated,” Rogozin said during an interview with Russia’s Rossiya-24 television channel.

Despite this denial, he did not provide any details on what Russia plans to do in connection with the Moon during the next decade. Nor did lay out his 10-year plan, which still remains unapproved or finalized despite the fact that its first year is about to begin. Instead, he began describing a new government space project, the development of a super-heavy rocket he dubbed “Fenix.”

“In fact, the work on the new space program has been started, I tell you this as some serious news on the super-heavy rocket,” the deputy prime minister said. The official said that if the Angara rocket is like a jeep capable of taking to orbit 7 tons of payload in the light variant and up to 37 tons — in the heavy variant, then for major expeditions it is necessary to have a “dump truck.”

“The super-heavy rocket will be such “dump truck”, but we are getting down to its creation like the Soviet Union had embarked on such project — first it created the Zenit rocket that was the first stage of the super-heavy rocket Energia, and only after that additional modules were created for such unique rocket,” he said. “We are now creating it on a totally new technology basis, and the creation of the Fenix rocket, which will become the first stage of the super-heavy rocket, is envisaged in the new federal space program.

Rogozin added that the payload capacity of this rocket will exceed 100 tons, and maybe even 150 tons.

First, his description of the development of Energia is absurd. Zenit initially had nothing to do with that heavy-lift rocket. When the Soviet government suddenly decided it needed a space shuttle (to copy the U.S.) and decided to build Energia to launch it, their engineers improvised its construction by using Zenit as Energia’s strap-on boosters. Moreover, Zenit’s development literally took decades, delayed repeatedly by budgetary, technical, and management problems.

So, while Rogozin cites Zenit and Energia as an example of smart design and management, if anything their history points to typical big government chaos.

Second, even as he announced this super-heavy rocket project, which I guarantee will be very expensive, he added that the government’s space goal is to do things cheaper!

“We are getting closer to new solutions,” Rogozin who is responsible for the space industry in the Russian government said. “If we are asked what the main task in civil space is, we would say that it is not the Moon or Mars, the main task is cheap space. Our competitors are on our heels. We are looking for a solution that will allow making spacecraft launches cheaper. … Of course, such solutions will be found. Just recently the president signed a decree on abolishing the Federal Space Agency. That means that there will no longer be so much bureaucracy. Everything will now be part of a state corporation which will design new spacecraft and implement new projects by itself,” Rogozin said. [emphasis mine]

Either Rogozin is a fool or he thinks his audience are fools. The abolishment of the Federal Space Agency eliminated no bureaucracy at all. All it did was give that bureaucracy a new name, Roscosmos, and give it a more power by putting it in charge of all of Russia’s aerospace industry. Previously, the agency was in charge of very little, with management under the control of the different design bureaus that had become separate and supposedly private companies after the fall of the Soviet Union. The new decree now gives Roscosmos, and the government, control of those design bureaus again.

Not only does this decree not save any money at all, it will likely lead to higher costs and a great deal of inefficiency. Top-down rule, combined with large bureaucracies separated from the incentive of profit, always produces waste and corruption.

Overall, Rogozin’s comments suggest that there is a great deal of confusion within Putin’s government on what to do in space. On one hand he says they want to do it cheaper. On the other he says they want to build a very expensive rocket. Then with his third hand he adds that they still plan to go to the Moon, but also took out his fourth hand to note that their goal is not the Moon or Mars, but doing things cheaper.

None of this surprises me. The goal of government is power, and nothing else. Putin’s government has regained that power over its country’s aerospace industry. Beyond that it doesn’t have the slightest idea what to do.


  • “Our competitors are on our heels.”

    This is true because the Russians have been lapped.

    And ‘Fenix’? Really? Who names these things? Sounds like ‘Felix (it’s the neat rocket)’. Maybe the Russians should let NATO have a crack at naming their rockets. My understanding is that the Russian military takes great interest in the code names NATO assigns. Some they like (Flanker, Foxbat), some they’re less than pleased with (Frogfoot, Bison).

  • hondo

    So much talent – so much potential and resources too boot! And yet …. can’t figure them out. Do have a lot of beautiful women though.

  • Frank

    Their economy is due to shrink this year, in part because of low worldwide oil prices. They are not financially strong.

  • pzatchok

    These heavy lift rockets are stupid. Maybe in the future they will be economic and viable but not today.

    I would rather make 15 10 ton lifts and risk one or two to destruction than hope one big lift goes well.
    It would be cheaper and we need the zero G construction experience more than massive ground construction experience.

  • The project might be silly, but Fenix is Russia’s phonetic spelling of Phoenix, so it isn’t as silly a name as it first appears.

  • Edward

    It is obvious that centralizing (read: “nationalizing”) its space program has resulted in decline (and confusion), rather than improvement.

    When you give the government control, all you will get in return is what the government wants, not what you wanted. This is happening to the Russian space program, right now.

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