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Unfortunately, this typical scenario did not save Phobos-Grunt. The political pressure to launch was so great that nobody dared to stop the "countdown." In a paradox inherited from USSR, it is sometimes more dangerous for Russian space officials to declare the spacecraft not fit for launch than to let it fail in space. Admitting problems before launch could be a career suicide, while problems in orbit, if they do happen, could be always blamed on external factors, such as meteoroids, space junk, American secret weapons, or on scapegoats at the bottom of the industrial food chain, such as computer programmers, welders or propellant-loading technicians. For fairness sake, it should be said that the problem is timeless and universal, in the wake of the Challenger disaster in 1986, a similar pressure to launch was reported.
Previous chapter: Russian space industry during the 2000s
On October 7, 2013, Russian media started the week with a flurry of unconfirmed reports about the inevitable replacement of the Russian space agency head Vladimir Popovkin. According to the Izvestiya daily, the Deputy Defense Minister Oleg Ostapenko would be appointed the new boss at the agency. In turn, Popovkin was reportedly offered a position of the presidential adviser on space activities.
In the meantime, the Kommersant daily reported that the Director General of the AvtoVAZ automobile firm Igor Komarov could lead the newly formed United Rocket and Space Corporation, ORKK, which would consolidate the Russian rocket and space industry following its planned reorganization.
According to a posting on the online forum of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine, the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, was expected to emerge from the latest round of reforms with significantly diminished responsibilities, (likely giving real powers within the industry to the head of ORKK).
On October 10, just 24 hours after publishing denials from Roskosmos, official Russian media finally confirmed the change at the helm of the agency.
Industry shakeup of 2011
At the end of 2010, Russia's already troubled space industry was further shaken by the failure of the Proton rocket sending a trio of GLONASS satellites to crash down into the ocean. This high-profile fiasco attracted the unwanted attention of the government and led to media stories about corruption and nepotism within the Russian space agency. Within a month, the GLONASS accident was followed by the botched launch of the Rockot booster, which left a new-generation Geo-IK-2 military satellite in a useless orbit. It was now clear that heads would roll at Roskosmos.
At the beginning of 2011, Russian government officials confirmed old rumors that Anatoly Perminov, who had led Roskosmos since the mid-2000s, would be leaving his post after the celebration of Gagarin's pioneering flight in April. The Kremlin officially announced the removal of Perminov on April 29. Former Deputy Minister of Defense for Armaments, Vladimir Popovkin, was appointed the new chief of Roskosmos. Like Perminov, Popovkin came from the military, a fact which made many veterans of the industry react cynically to the latest reshuffle. According to many critics, the agency, which depends on highly educated personnel and complex technological processes, needed an intelligent technocrat and an experienced administrator at its helm, rather than a commands-barking drill sergeant. According to one source, the military takeover of Roskosmos in 2000s, made the management of the industry even more backward than it had been during the Soviet period. In the first quarter of 2012, Ministry of Finance rated Roskosmos as one of the worst among federal agencies in handling its budget.
On June 27, 2011, official Russian media reported that the Kremlin had reprimanded Deputy Chief of Roskosmos, Anatoly Shilov for errors, which had prevented the on-time deployment of the Meridian, Kondor and Geo-IK-2 satellites. As it transpired, the official reprimand No. 1025-r was signed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on June 14, 2011.
Naturally, this "bloodletting" did nothing to prevent a string of even more spectacular launch failures in August 2011, resulting in the loss of the Ekspress-AM4 communications satellite and the unprecedented crash of a Progress cargo ship heading to the International Space Station. The year of the 50th anniversary of Gagarin's historic flight was concluded with the disastrous fiasco of the Phobos-Grunt mission. Advertised as the nation's return to planetary exploration, Phobos-Grunt proved to be another mismanaged project, exactly as insiders had warned. Despite wide-spread knowledge of the project's deficiencies, top Roskosmos officials gave the green light to the doomed launch. In the runup to the disastrous mission, the agency threatened to punish industry employees and to discredit the few independent journalists who had dared to expose mismanagement of Phobos-Grunt and other space projects.
From several reliable sources, it is well known that Roskosmos leadership stubbornly insisted on launching a completely unprepared and untested Phobos-Grunt spacecraft in 2009. However at the time, Russian Academy of Sciences and the agency's own TsNIIMash certification center refused to go along with such a suicidal move. However, in 2011, even most influential leaders of the industry were unable to resist the political pressure to launch the ill-fated mission.
In a paradox inherited from USSR, it is sometimes more dangerous for Russian space officials to declare the spacecraft not fit for launch than to let it fail in space. Admitting problems before launch could be a career suicide, while problems in orbit, if they do happen, could be always blamed on external factors, such as meteoroids, space junk, secret US experiments, or on scapegoats at the bottom of the industrial food chain, such as computer programmers, welders or propellant-loading technicians.
Although the current occupants of Kremlin were responsible for top appointments at Roskosmos, as well as for creating a system, where they would hear only what they wanted to hear, the Russian government appeared to be heading along its usual route of finding scapegoats. In the absence of a real political opposition or viable independent media, the entrenched political system had little incentive for fixing itself. Instead, the Russian government preferred to escalate the climate of fear in the industry, which had already been struggling to attract young engineering and scientific talent. In a nationally televised speech on November 26, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev found it appropriate to remind Roskosmos employees of the mass executions of the Stalin era: "The latest failures are hitting hard at our competitiveness. This does not mean that anything fatal happened. It just means that we have to do a detailed flight assessment and punish those responsible," Medvedev said, "I am not proposing to line people up against the wall like it was with Iosif Vissarionovich (Stalin in power)."
With his trivialization of Stalin's crimes in a pre-election political theater, Medvedev played a dangerous game of appeasing those who saw the unspeakable terror of the Soviet past as a viable future for Russia, even if it would mean the certain torture and death of countless friends and family members, a life in mortal fear, with survival often depending on the betrayal of others and on the applauding a paranoid dictator. In the 1930s, Stalin's henchmen nearly decimated the nascent Soviet rocket development program, along with the rest of the Soviet society. Leaders of the Rocket Research Institute, RNII, were murdered and the organization's leading engineers, Sergei Korolev and Valentin Glushko, lost years of their lives in prisons.
In the meantime, according to sources within the industry, the latest round of purges at Roskosmos was expected to start as soon as November 28, 2011. Although no reshuffle followed at the time, launch failures did. On Aug. 6, 2012, another mishap of the Briz upper stage on the Proton rocket, left Telkom-3 and Ekspress-MD2 satellites in the wrong orbit. A week later (on August 15), official Russian media reported that Vladimir Nesterov, the head of GKNPTs Khrunichev, which builds Proton and Briz vehicles, had resigned his post.
During 2012, the agency leadership promised to increase lagging salaries in the field 1.3 times from 30,000 to 40,000 rubles and improve quality of training at colleagues supplying workforce for space industry.
Under Popovkin, Roskosmos continued the integration of Russian space enterprises into larger holdings. By 2013, GKNPTs Khrunichev was scheduled to absorb Pilugin NPTs Avtomatiki and Moscow-based OKB Mars, both building flight control systems. Around the same period, TsSKB Progress was to integrate with NPO Avtomatika in Ekaterinburg and NII Command Devices in St. Petersburg. Previously, TsSKB Progress absorbed its major contractors: NPP Opteks in Zelenograd, which was specialized in telemetry transmission systems and OKB Spektr in Ryazan, developing avionics for remote-sensing satellites.
Even much larger company, such as NPO Lavochkin found itself among possible candidates to be absorbed by RKK Energia or ISS Reshetnev. Although the official pretext for such drastic measure was to prepare the industry for a large-scale lunar exploration program or for the development of complex space observatories, the real reason could be Lavochkin's failures in the development of Phobos-Grunt and other projects.
Also, during 2012, the TsKB TM design bureau, previously responsible for rocket launching hardware and fortified firing rooms for ICBMs, was reorganized into Strategic control sites corporation.
In addition, Popovkin mandated that positions of Director General and Designer General at the helm of space enterprises were occupied by different officials by the second half of 2013. Traditionally, the same individual would often held both positions for many years. The apparent goal was to enable experienced engineers to take leadership roles as Designer Generals, while political appointees and non-technical managers would be limited to Director positions. According to documents published in March 2012, as many as 77 organizations could see their top management positions split, however the focus would be on "failing" companies, Popovkin was quoted as saying at the time.
On June 26, 2013, President Putin signed an order No. 250-rp "On the commission for the structuring of the control system for the rocket and space industry," which appointed Deputy Chair of the Russian government Dmitry Rogozin to lead the reorganization of the rocket industry. The document also required to develop and submit for the approval by the president a plan of actions on the industry reorganization in the 3rd quarter of 2013.
Typically for Russian scientific community and space industry, even sharp increases in funding did not produce visible results. Some observers feared that overwhelming corruption, inefficiency at present and devastating losses of the 1990s would require decades of new investments before the industry could at least return to the Soviet level. Still, by 2013, the Russian government hurried to report some progress. On June 28, the Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told the Russian press that production levels in the rocket and space industry increased by 10.8 percent in 2012, comparing to 2011. During the same period, electronics industry increased its output by 11.7 percent and aviation industry by 10.6 percent.
Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: October 10, 2013
Last edit: November 27, 2011
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The official photo released on August 14, 2012, shows the head of the Russian space agency, Vladimir Popovkin (right) discussing problems of the space industry with Dmitry Medvedev, who served as the Russian Prime-Minister at the time. Credit: Russian government