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Three news stories from Russia, two from today and one from last week, provide us a flavor of the kind of space stories that come out of Russia almost daily, either making big promises of future great achievements, or making blustery excuses for the failure of those big promises to come true.
- Musk deliberately understates prices of commercial rocket launches — Roscosmos chief
- Research module Nauka to be launched to ISS in November 2019
- Russia’s Proton rockets to stay in service till at least 2024
In the first the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, rationalizes the failure of Russia to compete successfully with SpaceX.
The head of the US space company SpaceX, Elon Musk, deliberately understates the prices of commercial launches of his space rockets as he enjoys support from the government of the United States, the CEO of Russia’s space corporation Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, told TASS in an interview.
“It is not rocket reusability that constitutes Musk’s main competitive edge. The US government enables him to use dumping on the market of launch services. Musk’s launches for the Pentagon are twice more expensive. In this way he compensates for his losses on the commercial market, thus ‘killing’ competitors who do not have lavish government support to rely on,” Rogozin said.
Bah. SpaceX’s ability to develop a cheaper rocket was certainly helped by money that came from NASA, but there is also no doubt that the company has proven launch costs were too high. That Russia hasn’t been able to compete is more a reflection on that nation’s struggling space industry then it is on SpaceX’s finances.
In the second story, Rogozin makes a promise about the long delayed launch of the Nauka module for ISS, stating that it will finally happen in November 2019. This launch might happen as proposed, but the history of the module illustrates why most Russian space promises should be taken with a grain of salt. Construction on this single module began in 1995 (that’s 23 years ago) and has been hampered by technical and managerial problems from the get-go. The most recent delay, contamination throughout the fuel system, illustrated the serious quality control problems systemic to the entire Russian space industry.
The third story also illustrates the bloated nature of Russia’s consolidated government-run space industry. The reason that Proton will continue to launch through 2024 is because its replacement, the Angara rocket, first proposed in 1991, will not be able to achieve full operation until then, meaning that it will have taken Russia a third of a century (33 years!) to conceive, design, and build a new rocket. Moreover, Angara’s modular design was conceived to make it more efficient than Proton, but instead, it is more expensive.
As far as the costs of the new rocket, they will go down in the long term as technologies are improved and lower labor intensity is achieved. “It is true that at the moment the rocket is far more costly than the Proton, but it will not be so forever,” Koptev explained.
As is typical, Koptev makes excuses for this high cost, noting that Angara is better anyway because the fuels it uses are more “ecological.”
The most ironic aspect of this is how much it reminds me of the promises, delays, and technical problems repeatedly experienced by NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion capsule. Like all of Russia’s space industry, SLS/Orion is a creature of a big government program, designed not to be efficient and actually achieve anything but to justify pork and create fake jobs that politicians can claim help the economy of the nation. It also has taken decades to build. It also is costing an ungodly amount. And it also is accompanied by false and absurd promises.
Until Russia cleans house by privatizing and breaking up its space industry so that real competition can occur, do not expect much to come from it in space in the coming decades. Like SLS, they will continue to make big promises, all false and guaranteed to fail.