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Vostochny failure points to serious problems in Russian aerospace

This update on the launch failure at Vostochny last week suggests there are some very serious problems permeating the entire Russian aerospace industry.

According to a post on the online forum of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine, the Fregat stage for the ill-fated first mission from Vostochny was originally built for the launch of the Rezonans scientific satellites from Baikonur.

At the same time, experts agree that the problem could theoretically have been resolved before launch, if not for the poor coordination between the developers of the flight control systems of the Soyuz-2 launch vehicle and their colleagues working on flight controls for the Fregat. As one poster on the Novosti Kosmonavtiki forum noted: in the deluge of pre-launch paperwork between RKTs Progress in Samara, which built Soyuz-2, and NPO Lavochkin, which developed Fregat, discussing a multitude of legal issues, confirming and reconfirming various agreements and reminders, there was not a single memo attracting the developers’ attention to a different alignment of the launch pad in Vostochny from that of other sites. Obviously, such information was buried in the working documentation on the mission, but nobody thought about the effect of this fact on the launch. The lower echelon of engineers simply missed that detail, while top managers had no idea at all, because, the majority of them lacked the necessary qualifications, the poster said. [emphasis mine]

Top managers who “lack the necessary qualifications?” This smacks of a corrupt hiring system having nothing to do with qualifications or the need to do good work. It also is typical of a government-run operation, which the entire Russian aerospace industry is after Putin consolidated it all into one single cooperation under government control in 2014. And prior to that the big Russian companies didn’t really operate under a system of free competition, but like mob gangsters they divided up the work among themselves and then worked together to prevent any new competition from forming.

I’m not sure how Russia is going to fix this. In a free market the solution would be for competition to produce new companies with fresh ideas, forcing the bad companies out of business. Putin’s consolidation combined with a Russian culture that does not seem to understand the idea of competition appear to make that process difficult, if not impossible.


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  • ken anthony

    We have the exact same problem in America. The difference is our lower tiers take more personal responsibility. It’s something in the character of both countries. It’s not a question of intelligence.

    I was married to a Russian. She was both highly intelligent and naive at the same time.

  • LocalFluff

    Funny, they managed it in the Soviet union. In 1957 Sputnik I and II were launched only a month between. And both succeeded on first attempts ever. Soyuz is basically the same rocket design 60 years later. Maybe the post-Jeltsin modernization of Soyuz is what is somehow fundamentally making this the most launched of all launch systems fall apart? It’s the upper stages that fail and AFAIK they are the most modernized parts of the Soyuz.

    Maybe the difference is that in the Soviet Union it was the military who took care of the rocket things, while now Putin cares about money and “friends”, and that after the end of the cold war there are now such to be had in the space industry? So, like Napoleon he appoints his incompetent and harmless friends to head all of that: “-Oh yeah, sure, that’d be alright, sir! I’ll make you the first man to walk on the Moon. You will, I promise if I get the billio… I mean the job.”

  • wodun

    You don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to be a good manager. It could actually be beneficial because they would ask a lot of questions and not have as many assumptions. The flip side is you have to select someone who is actually a good manager and not someone who gained their position through graft.

  • Edward

    wodun wrote: “It could actually be beneficial because they would ask a lot of questions and not have as many assumptions.

    Assuming that they know the right questions to ask. In most of my training sessions instructor would ask, “any questions?” Of course, the questions would come later, when we students tried to actually do what had been taught, because the experience was different than the training. It is difficult to know what the right questions are, and it is difficult to know when you have received the right answer. It is even more difficult when you are not familiar with the subject.

    Thiokol’s Roger Boisjoly (the hero of the Challenger disaster) had seen serious damage on the January 1985 Shuttle launch (burnthrough of the first O-ring and damage to the second). He wrote a report to NASA, in March, explaining that it was acceptable to launch under similar cold conditions. The night before the final Challenger launch, Boisjoly tried to convince Thiokol and NASA to not launch, using mostly the same data and charts from the March report. NASA asked the right questions: which is correct; can we launch or not? Boisjoly did not supply the correct answer, which was that the previous March he had expected similar conditions to never reappear, so he gave a recommendation in his March report that matched the contractual requirements, not the physical reality, so that recommendation was wrong (meanwhile, he had convinced Thiokol and NASA to redesign the solid rocket boosters to have a third O-ring, but that design was not available in 1986).

    Thiokol provided the wrong answer, and the cognizant engineers at NASA did not know that they had received the wrong answer.

    Come to think of it, most of the cognizant engineers and managers at Thiokol did not realize that they had given the wrong answer.

    There were other right questions to ask, that evening, but no one knew them at the time. Not even the cognizant engineers.

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