Roscosmos in the news!


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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.

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.

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7 comments

  • wodun

    Musk’s launches for the Pentagon are twice more expensive.

    It is impossible to know to what degree but the premium on government launches can’t all be from increased requirements that drive up price.

  • mkent

    “Musk’s launches for the Pentagon are twice more expensive.”

    About 50% more expensive, but not twice. SpaceX’s commercial Falcon 9 launches go for $62 million according to their website, while their military launches go for about $90 million, according to recent Pentagon press releases.

    Although, having said that, the surcharge may not be directly proportional to launch costs. It may be a flat add-on to the commercial price. We’ll find out if SpaceX starts winning non-test Falcon Heavy launches from the Air Force. If they cost $225 million, we’ll know the military surcharge is a proportional 50% more than commercial. If they cost $180 million, we’ll know it is a flat $30 million fee.

    “…but the premium on government launches can’t all be from increased requirements that drive up price.”

    Yes it can, and it probably is. Profit margins on military contracts are capped by the FARs, and copious amounts of cost data are required to be delivered to the Pentagon to justify any bid price. A surcharge of “because I can” is frowned upon by auditors and can put you in jail.

    “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.”

    Is he implying that Roscosmos doesn’t have lavish government support? Unlike the Falcon 9, the Atlas V, and the Delta IV Medium, both the Soyuz and the Proton were developed entirely with government money. They are built in government-owned factories by, at best, quasi-government employees. And I believe they are both still launched by the Strategic Rocket Forces of the Russian Armed Forces.

    Contrast this with the Falcon 9 and Delta IV Medium, which were developed almost entirely with private-sector money, and the Atlas V, which was about a 50-50 public / private partnership. All three of those vehicles are built by private-sector employees working in commercial factories for commercial businesses.

    I know I’ve criticized SpaceX somewhat on this blog, but the criticism by Rogozin above is entirely unfair.

  • wodun

    There is a lot of inconsistency in how and for how much government contracts have been awarded. When one of the goals is to kick start new providers, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the awards reflect that. While Koptev didn’t differentiate between NASA and the military, we can see that both of those groups have handled contracting with SpaceX a little differently.

    SpaceX is certainly saving us a lot of money but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some pork involved.

  • Localfluff

    Russia should go for nuclear fission thermal propulsion, which they allegedly already have tested for their global cruise missile. Combining rocketry with nuclear power would nail two Russian core competences. To remain a leading space power that is the kind of paradigm shift they need. They cannot compete with US entrepreneurship and they cannot afford subsidizing space when it should be a source of income for them.

    Flying the Proton until its 60th birthday seems to be more of a desperate stop gap than the future of space travel. Sea going ships and some simple heavy machine tools like presses can stay in service for many decades, but 60 years is pushing it even for that kind of equipment. Proton still flying wasn’t what Arthur C Clarke envisioned in 2001 A Space Odyssey.

  • Localfluff

    I had thought that Angara would be ready to fly for real any day now soon, having had successful test launches of both the single and the five core versions already four years ago now, albeit without any upper stages. But having heard Anatoly Zach’s assessment of it the other week it seems to still be largely a paper rocket. And the ground facilities for it are lacking other than at the Arctic Plesetsk cosmodrome. And it doesn’t look to be much cheaper in spite of its modularity.

  • Edward

    wodun wrote: “It is impossible to know to what degree but the premium on government launches can’t all be from increased requirements that drive up price.

    (This comment is also partially in response to mkent.)

    Actually, it can. Clearly, Rogozin is comparing the $62 million standard price of a Falcon 9 with the $135 million price of a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) launch. The CRS requirement includes not only the Falcon 9 rocket but also the pressurized Dragon spacecraft and the unpressurized “trunk.” In the early years, the Dragon was one-use. It was only recently that SpaceX has been allowed to reuse a Dragon.

    Rogozin’s comparison is unfair to SpaceX, as much more is required for the “twice more expensive” government launch than is required for a commercial launch. The commercial launch only needs an inexpensive faring, as the spacecraft is supplied by the customer, but the government CRS launch needs a SpaceX-supplied spacecraft and support module.

    From the first article: “The US government enables [SpaceX] to use dumping on the market of launch services.

    There’s hypocrisy if ever there was some. The Russians have no idea what it costs to build or launch any of its rockets. They just charge whatever the market will bear, so it is unknown whether they make or lose money with each launch — whether Russia is dumping on the market launch services. It is only presumed that they make money, because in a free-market-capitalist economy a company would not stay in business long if it kept losing money, and capitalists tend to project their own values and requirements onto other systems. But in a government-controlled and financed industry, such as Russia’s space industry, companies do not have the same financial tracking needs as capitalist companies. Capitalist owners demand accountability in order to assure that their investment is still good. Government owners don’t care so much about accountability as they care about the end results (e.g. the end justifies the means or expense).

    As for delays, especially comparing government with commercial companies, government is much more tolerant of delays than the companies. Unlike governments, companies are not an endless supply of other people’s tax money, but have to justify their projects for future business and revenue. SpaceX reportedly twice came close to cancelling their Falcon Heavy, which was only delayed for a mere five years for a development time of around eight or nine years. SLS (in its current incarnation, not including the Constellation version) is now going to go on for a good 13 years of development; as noted, the Nauka module for ISS is taking 23 years to complete and launch; and also as noted, the Angara rocket is taking 1/3 century to develop.

    For commercial companies, if it does not look promising, it gets cancelled. Lockheed Martin retired its commercial Athena rocket when the expected market failed to materialize. SpaceX has cancelled a couple of its own projects (e.g. Falcon 5 and powered Dragon landings) when its customers did not show sufficient interest in those capabilities.

    Robert wrote: “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.

    To expand on that:
    The economy of a nation is determined by the goods and services produced, not by the flow of money. You and I could exchange hundred dollar bills, back and forth, over and over again, for hours, but that flow of money does not increase or help the economy. Why? Because no goods or services were produced.

    Creating jobs (fake or real) does nothing to increase the economy when the funding for those jobs comes from taxes (no goods or services produced) or when those jobs do not efficiently produce goods or services. This does not increase or help the economy.

    SpaceX, with about half a billion dollars (a lot to Elon Musk, a drop in the bucket to government), developed the Falcon Heavy with at least four current customers (ARABSAT 6A, INMARSAT, U.S. AIR FORCE (STP-2), and VIASAT). NASA is spending tens of billions of dollars to develop a rocket with no foreseen mission and one government-mandated customer (Europa Clipper). Falcon Heavy will have a price tag in the neighborhood of $100 million, but SLS’s price tag will be somewhere around an order of magnitude higher.

    Clearly, the SpaceX jobs, which did not come from tax money, efficiently produced a rocket that provides a needed service at a reasonable price. This will increase and help the economy, especially since even more customers will spend even more money to create goods or services (and jobs) that use SpaceX’s services.

  • wayne

    Ref:
    Russian whining & excuses;
    If these people told me the sky was blue, I’d wonder what scam they were perpetrating.
    Typical soviet agitprop & disinformation, designed to shape the narrative to their twisted ends.

    “Rogozin was born in Moscow to a family of a Soviet military scientist. He graduated from Moscow State University in 1986, with a degree in journalism, and in 1988, he graduated the University of Marxism–Leninism under the Moscow City Committee of the CPSU with another degree in economics.”

    He’s an “expert” in “soviet journalism,” and “Marxist-economics,” of course he’s not happy with SpaceX.

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