MOSCOW — Compared to last century's Cosmonaut glory, Russia's space program is looking more like a dud these days.
On May 16, a Proton-M rocket crashed in Siberia with its commercial load, a Mexican telecommunications satellite. A week earlier, a Progress spacecraft, a Russian cargo craft that was supposed to deliver more than three tons of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), instead disintegrated in the Pacific Ocean after falling out of orbit. And the difficulties of another Progress craft already docked to the ISS have hampered a planned correction of its orbit.
This isn't the first time that Russia's space industry has faced a succession of misfortunes, even in recent years. But this latest rough patch coincides with the May 18 approval of legislation aimed at overhauling the sector. It calls for all the industry's actors to be regrouped inside a single state corporation, the Russian Federal Space Agency, more commonly known as Roscosmos.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin reacted to the recent series of failures by urging patience. "These contingencies result from a systemic crisis in the industry, which Roscosmos has yet to overcome," he said.
But Mikhail Degtyarev, deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Commission for Science and High Technology, characterized the nature of the problem very differently. "Suddenly, two spacecrafts of different types crash," he said. "There's something fishy. National security organizations need to look abroad or inside the sector to find the causes, focusing in priority on the possibility of sabotage." The influential lawmaker believes the right recipe involves a "relentless ideological work from space technicians who need to understand that the goal is to turn Russia into a superpower."
Russia 24 state TV channel shows the Proton-M rocket crashing on July 2, 2013 — Photo: Tv Grab/Xinhua/ZUMA
Such Soviet-like stances are raising smiles among space experts such as Yuri Karash, a member of the Russian Space Academy. "Everybody knows the name of the two saboteurs," he says. "They're called Negligence and Incompetence."
A return to the Soviet style
The failures are the consequence of a long period of underfunding, which drove out a great part of our technicians and engineers, says independent expert Vadim Lukashevich. "Today, Russia is greatly boosting production without having the means for it, which leads to accidents," he says.
He believes the formation of a state corporation like Roscosmos is a step in the wrong direction. "The previous model, which consisted in separating the client, that is the space agency, and the manufacturers was better. It's the model that almost everybody uses. But we, on the contrary, have decided to go back to a Soviet-style, opaque model that bans competition. The problem is that we no longer have the USSR's resources, nor do we have the same goals."
The repeated failures of the Proton and Soyuz spacecrafts are forcing some to question the last area of the space industry in which Russia still dominates — namely, launches. Oleg Frolov, a member of the Russian Military Industrial Commission, recently acknowledged that the country's share in the global space industry market had fallen to just 1%.
"That's right," Lukashevich confirms. "We are the very last in scientific exploration, well behind the Americans in terms of military, and as far as satellite conception is concerned, we've even fallen behind China."
There's been a lot of conversation in recent weeks about Russian cooperation with China and India. "These are political announcements that will never materialize because these countries' goals are not compatible with ours," Lukashevich explains. "Our logical partners remain first and foremost the Europeans, then the Americans."
On the political front, the space issue means a lot for Russia, where everybody still remembers the strength of the USSR. A recent poll showed that 47% of Russians want the space program to be expanded, even as the country is mired in its worst economic crisis in 15 years.
On the other hand, British singer Sarah Brightman, who was supposed to be the next "space tourist" in September, has ceased to believe in Russia's capacities. Probably frightened by the recent wave of failures, she has canceled her plans to board a Soyuz capsule and will perhaps be replaced at the last minute by a Russian billionaire.