2016: Work on MLM module stalls again
In 2016, Russian officials began identifying the MLM module as MLM-U, where "U" stood for "usovershenstvovanny" or "upgraded." These "upgrades" were not publicly detailed at the time. The new name referred to the latest changes related to adapting the module for operation as a part of the future Russian space station.
An undated photo released in June 2016 shows the MLM module or its prototype at RKK Energia's Checkout and Test Station, KIS, in Korolev.
Following a contract from Roskosmos awarded at the end of 2015 for the upgrades of the MLM module into an MLM-U configuration, RKK Energia developed a formal preliminary design of the spacecraft. Roskosmos approved the upgrades on June 23, 2016. In the second half of 2016, RKK Energia developed technical documentation for the new hardware and produced full-scale mockups of the SKKO platform, which was a part of the MLM-U upgrades. The company also reported that it was finishing testing of the SKKO platform and was completing the manufacturing of components for the assembly of the flight-worthy MLM-U vehicle.
According to the official schedule approved on April 14, 2016, the launch of the MLM module was set for Dec. 31, 2017, or around six months behind the previously quoted launch date.
On June 20, RKK Energia issued a press-release saying that the company completed the manufacturing and testing of some unidentified equipment for the interior of the module. At the same time, the head of RKK Energia was quoted as saying that the development of documentation and the installation of large pieces of hardware on the exterior of the spacecraft had entered the final stage.
However, as of middle of September, all the work on the assembly of the MLM module had stalled again. According to industry sources, most of replacement components for the MLM's faulty propulsion system had already been manufactured, except for the pipelines, which would have to be bent based on their particular situation on the module. Still, military quality control officers, who were certifying all space industry manufacturing operations, refused to give the green light for the final assembly of the propulsion system for the MLM.
The stumbling block holding the assembly of the MLM has apparently a political nature rather than any real engineering justification. According to industry sources, the management at the military certification authority apparently ran into worsening relations with the leadership of the space industry. Ironically, it was a severe oversight on the part of the military certification officials that previously cleared the module for launch with a damaged propulsion system, industry sources charged. This time, political pressure from the top would probably be needed to move things forward, sources told RussianSpaceWeb.com.
The flight version of the spacecraft remained at Khrunichev factory in the District of Fili in Moscow with only a partially assembled propulsion system. The official schedule still called for the launch of the spacecraft at the end of 2017, however, in order to meet this deadline, all key systems had to be assembled and the module needed to leave Fili for Baikonur Cosmodrome in April 2017. A processing team in Baikonur would need next eight months to test and fuel the 19-ton spacecraft and prepare it for integration with its Proton rocket. According to officials close to the project, the December 2017 launch deadline could still be met, however, more likely, the MLM mission will have to be postponed for a few months into the beginning of 2018.
When discussing the launch of the European Robotic Arm, ERA, on the MLM module with European space officials, their Russian colleagues indicated that the mission had been tentatively planned for March 2018.
In a rare good news for the Russian segment of the ISS, the work on the MLM module had finally restarted by the end of 2016. This time, the MLM team had a goal of launching the spacecraft in December 2017, even though, it could require to cut the time originally allocated for the spacecraft testing.