Russia dissolves its federal space agency, what now?
Russian President Vladimir Putin officially put an end to the country’s Federal Space Agency Roscosmos on Monday, Dec. 28, by signing a decree dissolving the agency. The resolution will go into force on Jan. 1, 2016, when the space agency will be replaced by the Roscosmos State Corporation, which was established earlier in 2015. What does that actually mean for the space industry?
The change is a part of a reorganization of the Russian space sector that actually started more than two years ago. In August 2013, the United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC) was formed by the Russian government to renationalize the nation’s space sector.
The Federal Space Agency is now merging with URSC to create the Roscosmos State Corporation. Igor Komarov, the former CEO of URSC and the current chief of Roscosmos, will lead this new entity.
The new organization will be run as a corporation, one which will control the nation’s entire space industry. It is being carried out to ensure the continuity of powers which will be transferred from the now-dissolved federal space agency. However, the reorganization process itself is unlikely to bring any radical changes.
“The Russian Federation Government has been instructed to ensure continuity in carrying out the powers and functions being transferred to Roscosmos that had previously been performed by the abolished Federal Space Agency, and to resolve financial, support and other issues pertaining to implementation of the Executive Order,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
Putin instructed the Cabinet of Ministers to resolve financial, material, technical and other issues in connection with the implementation of his decree. In the near future, the government should carry out liquidation procedures, as well as provide the agency’s employees with legal guarantees and compensation.
Putin’s move to centralize Russian space sector is a response to a series of problems that have bedeviled the country’s space industry. Roscosmos is trying to recover from a series of embarrassing setbacks including mission failures, delays, and bureaucratic issues. Some of the more public disasters this year are as follows:
On Dec. 5, the Kanopus-ST satellite failed to separate from its launch vehicle, which resulted in the loss of the spacecraft designed to observe the Earth.
On May 16, a Russian Proton-M booster, which was intended to deliver a Mexican communications satellite into orbit, exploded shortly after liftoff (which later resulted in the near-duplicate Morelos-3 spacecraft to be launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket).
Each failure caused serious delays for various aspects of Russia’s space program. One of the more significant facts that helped lead to this decision is that Proton-M rockets have suffered four malfunctions since 2012. This streak of failures was a major prerequisite for government officials to start considering reorganization as well as the implementation of reforms for the space sector.
After one of these accidents, in July 2013, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the space industry, said that the failure-prone space sector is so troubled that it needs state supervision to overcome its problems. The Russian government has announced that extremely harsh measures would be taken that could “spell the end of the Russian space industry as we know it”.
Russia’s space industry is also suffering from corruption, financial problems, as well as being strangled by Russia’s prevalent bureaucracy.
This latest issue has been seen very clearly in the process of construction of the country’s new Vostochny Cosmodrome. The project has been rife with corruption investigations, lawsuits, hunger strikes over unpaid wages, and anti-competitive collusion when subcontractors have been selected. This has delayed the scheduled opening of the spaceport several times.
Russian officials hope that the newly launched Roscosmos State Corporation will help overcome these difficulties.
“There will no longer be so much bureaucracy. Everything will now be part of a state corporation which will design new spacecraft and implement new projects by itself,” Rogozin said.
However, the main challenges for the new state-run corporation could be budget cuts and competitiveness on the commercial launch market. The updated version of the Federal Space Program (FSP) for 2016-2025 suspends the Russian manned lunar exploration program. Roscosmos would rather focus on the development of a new super-heavy launch vehicle for deep space exploration purposes. The corporation has already begun the work on this rocket’s first stage, which has been named Fenix.
The Roscosmos State Corporation will seek solutions to minimize spending on launches to compete with commercial launch providers such as SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and Arianespace. Rogozin believes that such solutions can be found. Cheaper launches could help Roscosmos to attract more commercial customers, currently choosing other companies to send their payloads to orbit.
This, however, is highly unlikely. A report appearing on Space.com two years ago listed the price NASA pays per seat on one of Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft at $70.7 million. Shortly after confirming that they had successfully landed the first stage of a “Full Thrust” Falcon 9 rocket back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, that company’s founder, Elon Musk, noted that the rocket cost approximately $60 million – per booster.
This does not take into account the cost of the Dragon spacecraft they would be seated in. The fact that the crewed variant of Dragon and possibly portions of the Falcon 9 rocket could be reused (and thus potentially lower the amount SpaceX can charge to send crews to orbit) – and that no part of either the Soyuz rocket or spacecraft can be reused – suggest that the Roscosmos State Corporation might be facing an uphill battle.
Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.