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Three articles today illustrate starkly the sad state of the Russian space program.
The first story describes the serious problems for Russia’s first lunar probe in decades.
Its launch was originally scheduled for 2016 but was postponed to 2019 mainly because of lack of funding. Roscosmos allocated a budget of 4.5 billion rubles to NPO Lavochkin, Luna-Glob’s builder, as recently as October 2016.
Since then, almost everything has gone according to the plan, except with a crucial instrument called BIB, the probe’s inertial measurement unit. Provided by the Russian company NPO IT – located in the city of Korolyov, not far from ISS Mission Control – the BIB should provide the onboard computer with the necessary information to ensure guidance on the path from the Earth to the Moon.
However, BIB testing at NPO IT showed unexpected results, clearly indicating it was not working properly. The designers of this system noted it won’t be ready for the 2019 launch window, which resulted in NPO Lavochkin trying to replace it with a European equivalent called ASTRIX, designed by Airbus Defence & Space.
However, sanctions against Russia – from the European Commission in the fallout of the Ukrainian crisis – strictly forbid such a deal.
A different Russian instrument could replace BIB, but it won’t be ready in time, further delaying the mission to 2021 when many of its other instruments will be past their own due dates.
The second story describes the end of Russia’s Proton rocket, first built in the mid-1960s and since the 1990s has been its commercial workhorse. Faced with numerous failures and an inability to compete with SpaceX, it has lost its market share, and will now be replaced by Russia’s new Angara rocket. The problem is that Angara itself is not ready, and will likely not be operational until 2021, at the earliest.
The third article describes some of the reasons why Angara will take so long to be operational. Vostochny, Russia’s new spaceport, doesn’t have the necessary facilities, and it appears there is a disagreement within the Russian aerospace community about how fast those facilities can be built, or even if all are needed immediately. The top management in Roscosmos seems reluctant to switch all operations from Baikonur, probably for political reasons, while the expert quoted by the article says they should do it fast.
Either way, the entire Russian space program seems mired in bad technology, overpriced products, and poor and confused management. They have lost most of their commercial international customers, are about to lose NASA as well when Dragon and Starliner begin flying American astronauts, and do not have the resources to replace this lost income. Further, the top-down centralized management by the government of the entire aerospace industry has worsened these problems by stifling competition and innovation.
Russia might recover eventually, but for the next decade expect them to play a very minor role in space.