Russian space policy insights

I stumbled across a transcript from a press conference held Tuesday by Anatoly Perminov, head of Roskosmos. If you skim past the introduction, where Perminov goes through some launch statistics from 2005, Perminov had a few interesting things to say about Russia’s space program and its plans for the future:

  • Roskosmos plans to issue a request for proposals for the Kliper spacecraft on January 18. Only three organizations will be allowed to bid for the project: Energia, Khrunichev, and NPO Molniya. Since Kliper has been an Energia project, and since Roskosmos effectively controls Energia, this bidding process may be little more than a formality.
  • This year was the first year when the government fully funded all of Roskosmos’ programs “in spite of the lag in financing over the past years”.
  • Roskosmos and NASA signed an agreement late last week to cover NASA’s purchases of Russian flight services. NASA will pay cash for seats on Soyuz flights and cargo on Progress spacecraft, but Perminov declined to state how much NASA is paying: “we too have our commercial secrets.” He added that he hopes in the first half of 2006 to reach “a comprehensive agreement with NASA on ISS until the year 2011″.
  • A “waiting list” of space tourists and astronauts from other countries who want to fly on Soyuz spacecraft has formed. Perminov said Russia is looking at ways to increase the Soyuz production rate.
  • Perinov said that Roskosmos can meet the accelerated deadline for the replenishment of the GLONASS satellite navigation system requested by President Putin earlier this week, but that this “will require additional funding and we are going to make relevant proposals.”
  • The Russian Defense Ministry is in the process of handing over all the infrastructure at the Baikonur Cosmodrome to Roskosmos, a process that will be completed by the end of 2007.

While Perminov put the best spin possible on these developments, one thing he said made it clear that the Russian space program is far from the glory days of the old Soviet era:

I repeat, we can no longer engage in competition. It is impossible to compete, given the current level of financing. We are lagging behind in many spheres such as unmanned spacecraft, interplanetary research, exploration of other planets. Nothing can be done about it.

2 comments to Russian space policy insights

  • Dwayne A. Day

    This is a quite fascinating transcript. It is worth reading.

    I always assumed that every Russian space “press conference” would consist of a bureaucrat essentially speaking bureaucratese gobbledygook, but there are real questions and real answers in this press conference. Clearly the reporters (who are not all identified) are knowledgeable and represent various interests–some are interested in the space program itself, whereas others represent more social interests, such as living conditions at the facilities. I still find it mind-boggling that a country that once had only Tass and Pravda now has reporters asking government officials real questions. Of course the Russians have in many ways regressed when it comes to press freedoms, but they are still far more open than in Soviet times.

    Perimov’s opening statement is a bit of propaganda, bragging about how Russia led the world in rocket launches in the past year and offering various statistics indicating that the United States is a distant second. What he neglects to mention in the opening statement is that Russia also suffered a series of embarrassing launch failures during the year, as well as a number of satellite failures and other delays. One of the reporters calls him on that, and Perimov replies that he knows that that “we know your negative attitude to[ward] Roskosmos.” Not exactly a professional reply to a reporter who was pointing out that the picture is not as rosy as Perimov paints it.

    By the way, Perimov says that they made 24 launches. That was true at the time of the press conference. They made two additional launches since then, for a total of 26 launches, with three failures–about a 12% failure rate. Perimov claims 12 United States launches, which must include the four Zenit SeaLaunch launches as well. The US had a 100% success rate, with or without SeaLaunch.

    Also, focusing on launches has never been a particularly useful yardstick. The USSR traditionally launched many more rockets than the USA for a simple reason: their satellites did not last very long and so they had to replace them more often. That is less of an issue today, partly because Russian satellites last longer and partly because several of those payloads are actually Western satellites. But there is not much to brag about in the Russian space program.

    There are some interesting questions raised if you think about the subtext of this discussion. For instance, if the Russian space program is “fully funded,” then why are they seeking foreign partners and tourist flights to help offset costs? They seem to have their tin cup out for donations. And “fully funded” can also mean “they gave us everything we asked for–after they told us to ask for less.”

    Another question is their priorities. At the beginning of the press conference Perimov brags that the Russians performed more launches than anybody else. At the end of the press conference he essentially admits that they have virtually no space science program at all–no observatories, no probes to other planets, nothing. So “full funding” and “more launches than anybody” applies only to a rather narrow space program. They fund military spacecraft and launch vehicles and flights to the ISS and that’s it. Other countries (and ESA) have more balanced programs.

    Another minor comment: he states that they plan to switch to launching six GLONASS satellites on a Proton. That seems to be placing a lot of eggs in one basket.

  • Nemo

    Roskosmos and NASA signed an agreement late last week to cover NASA’s purchases of Russian flight services. NASA will pay cash for seats on Soyuz flights and cargo on Progress spacecraft, but Perminov declined to state how much NASA is paying: “we too have our commercial secrets.”

    From space.com:

    NASA will pay the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos) $21.8 million per passenger for Soyuz rides to and from the International Space Station (ISS) starting this spring.

    NASA spokeswoman Melissa Mathews said Jan. 5 that the U.S. space agency and its Russian counterpart concluded a $43.8 million deal just before New Year’s Day that includes Soyuz transportation to and from the space station for NASA’s newly named Expedition 13 crew member, Jeff Williams, and a ride home for astronaut Bill McArthur, who has been living onboard the station since October.

    So much for “secrets”.