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At a meeting earlier this week several high Russian officials sharply criticized both Roscosmos and its head, Dmitry Rogozin, for repeatedly predicting grand future successes even as the state of the Russian space program worsens.
On Wednesday, the prime minister of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, expressed his displeasure with the situation. During a meeting in Moscow with senior Roscosmos officials, Medvedev made sharply critical remarks that were reported by several Russian news organizations, including Gazeta.RU and RIA Novosti. (Translations were provided to Ars by Robinson Mitchell).
“This is a blunt and direct assertion: We need to quit projecting future plans, stop talking about where our missions will land in 2030, get to work, talk less, and do more,” Medvedev said. “We need to be more active in commercializing our space industry and increase Russia’s international market share of commercial launches.” [emphasis mine]
Medvedev as well as Russia’s deputy prime minister Yuri Borisov were blunt in noting that Roscosmos has done a bad job of competing in the commercial launch market, even as it made empty “grandiose projections” of its future deep space exploration plans.
Whether these criticisms will have any significant effect remains to be seen. Russia has structured its entire space industry into a single government-run corporation. Within Russia there is no competition, and everything is run from the top down. Such a set-up discourages innovation and risk-taking, the very things Russia needs for it to successfully compete on the world stage.
Imagine you are a young Russian guy with a clever idea for building smallsats in your basement. Or you are a young rocket engineer who has an idea about building rockets better. In Russian neither of these guys would be free to do anything, as all space projects must be supervised by Roscosmos. Roscosmos however is a government bureaucracy, and such bureaucracies are routinely loath to take risks and give power and opportunity to new people outside its power structure. Your project would either be squashed, or co-oped by the powers-in-charge so that it would not fly, as intended.
We see this in NASA today, with its decades-long resistance to new space companies like SpaceX. Fortunately, the U.S. aerospace industry has not been consolidated into a single government entity, run by NASA. Nor can it be, at least for now. The Constitution prevents government from doing this, while the political system allows for competition, even among politicians. The result has been that political appointees in both the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations have over the past dozen years pushed the idea of reducing NASA’s control over space, and have thus made possible the arrival of a viable commercial and very competitive space industry.
In Russia, under Putin, they did exactly the opposite in 2015, ending competition and consolidating their industry under full government control. The results since have not been pretty. In 2015 Russia led the world in launches with 34. In 2018 they only launched fifteen times, the lowest total for that country since the 1960s.
Nor do I expect this trend to change in the near future, notwithstanding the blunt talk above by Russia’s leaders. At least for the next decade, I expect Russia to be a very minor player in space.